ANNAPOLIS – Years from now, a King Kong-sized casino could reign over the Potomac. Some say the beast would attract gawkers and their money to National Harbor, bringing much-needed revenue to a struggling economy.
Others say the area is ill-equipped to support such size and strength, and the casino could consume other businesses in Prince George’s County.
This week, the Senate passed a bill that, pending approval in the House and at the ballot box, would allow table games statewide and pave the way for a full-fledged, Las Vegas-style casino in a large swath of Prince George’s County that includes National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway, the two most likely sites.
If a casino comes to National Harbor, some will win, some will lose. So, politicians, experts, business owners and citizens weighed in to sort out the winners and losers.
Rushern L Baker III
When Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III was elected in 2010, he inherited an office tainted by his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson.
An FBI wiretap infamously revealed Johnson and his wife Leslie Johnson plotting to hide nearly $80,000 in her underwear and flush a $100,000 check down the toilet.
If Baker could bring a casino to National Harbor, a site Johnson helped bring to the county, it could help to distance the office of county executive from that embarrassment by bringing jobs and revenue to a fiscally famished economy.
In his casino proposal, Baker estimated the county faces a $126 million dollar deficit in FY 2013, and that deficit is projected to grow in the years to follow.
“For him, it’s sort of politically obvious,” said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University.
“There will be jobs with benefits and presumably a cut for the county,” Crenson said.
Crenson believes with legislators proposing various taxes, a revenue generating facility could gain support.
“My hunch is that it will be approved because there’s an overwhelming opposition to paying taxes,” Crenson said. “Receptivity to new sources of revenue could win some favorable attention to this.”
If Baker is successful in his bid to bring a revenue-generating, job creating casino it could increase his political profile.
I think it would be a big feather in his cap, bringing those kinds of jobs into the county,” said Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s.
“Anytime we build anything in Maryland, we provide jobs,” Frush said. “And right now we need to provide jobs.”
John Brasseux, business agent of Local 22 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said his union members would certainly benefit.
“As a union we would benefit — if we got a contract there,” Brasseux said.
When a concert comes into an arena it brings anywhere from 5-15 trucks loaded with equipment, Brasseux said.
Local 22 members unload those trucks and help position lighting, hook up sound systems and if necessary build stages. They could also take part in any in-show scene changes, or with special effects.
And when it’s all over, they reverse the process and load everything back onto the trucks. Brasseux said such a concert could employee around 100 to 200 Local 22 members.
“Growth is almost always a great thing,” Brasseux said. “So if it happens it would be great, but we’re not counting on it by any stretch of the imagination.”
Unions associated with the construction of the casino would also benefit.
Jack Taylor, 53, currently assistant business manager of Washington’s Plumbers & Gasfitters Local Union 5, is keenly aware of how badly his members need jobs.
“Right now we’re at 18 percent unemployment out of 1,200 guys,” said Taylor, a Charles County resident.
Apprentice plumbers have five years to work 8,500 hours before graduating.
The next step is the journeymen level and a bump in pay. Last year, Taylor said 550 apprentices failed to earn their hours because jobs were down.
Many, Taylor said, were guys in their fifth year but just couldn’t get their 8,500 hours. If apprentices work steady hours for five years they typically earn more than 9,500 hours.
If Local 5 plumbers worked on the construction of a casino at National Harbor, Taylor estimates about 100 plumbers would be put to work.
His estimation comes from the construction of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor, which put about 100 Local 5 plumbers to work at its peak, Taylor said.
Baker’s intention has been for the new casino to include not just table games, but also entertainment similar to what’s seen in Las Vegas.
“If we had a billion dollar facility, then we could actually generate revenue for the state and the county in other things, like the entertainment aspect, like the foot traffic that would come to National Harbor,” Baker recently said in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee.
If a casino comes to National Harbor, entertainment is exactly what Kenneth “Kas” Flanagan is hoping will help his business.
Flanagan is the owner of The House of Kas, a 1,000-square-foot National Harbor boutique specializing in high-end men’s and women’s clothing.
“If they do the casino the way it’s supposed to be done, like Las Vegas with shows, it will definitely help my business, as long as they keep the right crowd down here,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan’s niche is creating custom clothing.
“If someone needs something made they sit with me and tell me what they want,” Flanagan said. “Then I sketch it right there in front of you.”
Flanagan said his clients include singers like Rihanna and Trey Songz, and if similar acts performed at a National Harbor casino it could mean increased revenue for his high-end haberdashery.
Traffic would certainly increase in an already congested region, a concern shared by opponents of the casino.
But traffic on the waterways in and out of National Harbor would be welcomed by the Potomac Riverboat Company.
Vice President Charlotte Hall said the company’s National Harbor location averages 125,000 passengers a year.
Weekends are usually the busiest time of the week, Hall said, especially when there are special events going on.
“I think it would be a win-win for everyone,” Hall said.
If it comes to fruition, Hall could see the need to increase the number of boats ferrying passengers to National Harbor. Right now there are two.
“I’m sure we’d have to add a few more water taxis,” Hall said.
In the company’s first year at National Harbor a direct run shuttled passengers to Georgetown. Paltry numbers forced the company to end the run. But, Hall said, because currently there is more happening at National Harbor the Georgetown run will return soon.
Some opponents concede a casino would bring jobs. But, they contend, it could take jobs, crushing an already floundering industry — horse racing.
“People don’t realize that from a racing perspective there’s a bigger impact to this state than just the dollars and cents that come in from gaming,” said Karen Bailey, director of public affairs for Penn National Gaming, which owns Rosecroft Raceway.
“There are 28,000 jobs related to the racing industry in this state,” Bailey continued. “There’s over a half million acres of farmland associated with the racing industry.”
Penn National purchased then bankrupt Rosecroft last year. The Pennsylvania-based company hopes to build a $300 million dollar casino at the track.
Under Baker’s plan, a private company would need a tax break in order to finance a $1 billion dollar casino at National Harbor.
Because the bill that passed the Senate calls for significant tax breaks, Bailey said, Penn National is the better choice for everyone.
“We aren’t asking for tax breaks. We’ll pay our own way for our direct infrastructure,” Bailey said. “When we come into a community we look at how we complement what’s already there.”
Bailey said Penn National’s casino proposal didn’t include a hotel because of the nearby Gaylord hotel.
“That’s who we are as a company, we look to complement and build everybody up and not be an island unto ourselves,” Bailey said.
Penn National isn’t the only company fighting a casino at National Harbor.
Delegate Frush is selling National Harbor as a destination location that won’t pull revenue from the Maryland Live! casino that plans to open in June in Anne Arundel County.
Frush said she believes a casino in Prince George’s would pull people from Washington and Virginia, not from Arundel Mills, which she called “off the beaten path.”
“I think that Arundel Mills, which was never my first choice for a casino anyway, will do okay,” Frush said. “It’ll do fine.”
But Joe Weinberg, president of the Cordish Cos. Gaming & Resorts Division isn’t buying.
“Complete and utter bull—-,” Weinberg said of the geographic argument, moments after he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee.
“We’re a mega-casino. A normal-sized casino would have a 60-mile primary range,” Weinberg said. “National Harbor is 30 miles from Arundel Mills, the heart of our primary marketplace.”
“So it is literally insane that we’re having this discussion,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg said his company is ready to defend its position in the market, but is confident they won’t need to.
“We would have to look at all legal options, but we don’t think there’s any appetite in the state,” Weinberg said. “We think that the General Assembly understands it’s unfair and unwise so we don’t think it will come to that.”
For some, the debate goes beyond dollars and cents.
Religious groups typically oppose gambling because they believe it fosters temptation and negativity. And some worry a Metro line could follow construction of a casino at National Harbor and import crime into the county.
“Do you realize all of the stuff that flows into the community because of the Metro and the buses,” said Bishop Dr. Joseph H. Thomas, senior pastor at Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Suitland. “Plus (gambling) helps to erode the moral fiber of our society.”
Thomas is no stranger to gambling.
“I’m not going to be hypocritical,” Thomas said. “Back in the day I used to play numbers. That was before they had the lottery, when numbers was illegal.”
Thomas said he got hooked on the thrill but realized he was wasting his money.
“If I played 522, it came 521 or 512, never hitting,” Thomas said. “And I realized one day, all this money that I’m putting out and not getting anything out of it, it’s ludicrous.”
If a casino comes to the county despite objections from religious groups, it would mark a second defeat on an issue generally opposed by churches.
In March, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill into law legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland. The bill goes before voters in November.
Crenson said the perception of the dwindling political power of the church is a national issue, not simply a Maryland issue.
“Over the last 10 years or so there has been a general movement away from churches,” Hall said. “This may be one local reflection of that.”
But Crenson quickly pointed out neither battle is over.
“The battle for same-sex marriage is not yet over,” Crenson said. “Neither is this one.”
Same-sex marriage will be decided at the polls. Depending on what the legislature does in the next week, gambling in Prince George’s could be, too.