MGM National Harbor, new Maryland 'landmark,' gambling on region's casino appetite

MGM aims landmark casino near D.C. at regional and destination markets.

The MGM National Harbor glows a shiny white at night, rising above the Potomac River like — its architect has suggested — a vast ship sailing into a dock.

That ship arrives for gamblers and D.C.-area boosters Thursday night when MGM opens the casino and resort beside Interstate 95 at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The company expects it will become not only a regional destination but a global one.

The $1.4 billion property promises to lure gamblers and others from near and far, further flooding state coffers with gaming revenue, and bringing even more tourists to one of the nation's top tourism regions.

"What's essentially different about this is MGM is obviously a world-class operator. It's clear from their plans that they have high hopes for this," said Michael Pollock, managing director at Spectrum Gaming Group, a gambling consultant in New Jersey. "From our vantage point, we suggest those high hopes will be justified."

While MGM will be Maryland's sixth casino, it stands alone in what Pollock called a "certain level of exclusivity" near Washington, which, along with Virginia, has no casinos. The next closest is Maryland Live at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover, making MGM a convenient destination for Virginians, Washingtonians and D.C. tourists who want to wager.

MGM is banking on the region's popularity among tourists and its population density, said Lorenzo Creighton, president of MGM National Harbor, citing the 26 million people who live within a 200-mile radius.

The casino opens amid a boom in regional gambling that's pinched other gambling destinations like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., and increased the acceptance of casinos — with their concerts, elaborate decor, dining and spas — as mainstream entertainment.

"This has now become a much more accessible and readily accepted form of entertainment," said Maryland Lottery and Gaming Director Gordon Medenica, who projects that MGM's arrival will mean hundreds of millions of dollars more in state tax revenue in the casino's first full year.

The state received $510 million in revenue sharing from casinos in the last fiscal year, making it Maryland's fourth-largest source of funds after income, sales and corporate taxes.

Creighton said the region's appetite for casinos is voracious enough to expand the market without taking a sizable chunk of business from Maryland Live and Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, its closest competitors.

Part of MGM's calculation remains based on its bid to become a destination resort for overnight customers, including international guests, but many customers will come from just across the river.

"The majority of the traffic will be drive-in traffic," Creighton said.

Tourism officials hope the casino attracts more foreign visitors to the area and perhaps a new category of visitor.

"We know families like to come — and people who like to learn about history. And there are students," said Robin McClain, vice president of marketing and communications for the Destination DC marketing organization. "This would be a different bucket in terms of a consumer audience."

Unlike some other casino business models, MGM traditionally goes for grand, resort-style casinos, where gambling is just one of the attractions, Pollock said. Resort visitors tend to stay longer and may or may not be focused on gaming, he said.

Billed as a "Las Vegas-style" casino, MGM National Harbor will include shops, restaurants and a 3,000-seat theater that, in its opening months, will attract acts including Bruno Mars, Cher, Sting, Boyz II Men and comedian Jim Gaffigan.

"What it means in the minds of the consumer is entertainment, fun, a quality experience," Pollock said.

MGM's "destination" business model will benefit from the casino's location in the fast-growing retail and entertainment center of National Harbor, Pollock said. Over the past decade, the plot of land in Prince George's County has been built up with thousands of hotel rooms, convention space, restaurants, an outlet mall and even a Ferris wheel.

MGM adds a significant building to National Harbor — another company signature, Pollock said.

"If you can develop an iconic property, and you have a business model designed to capture a broad share of the adults visiting a region, it ties in perfectly," Pollock said.

MGM hired Eddie Abeyta of HKS Architects to design the casino resort to those standards.

"It's something the community will be proud of, hopefully," said Abeyta, interviewed last week near the casino's two-story, glass-topped conservatory that was being readied with more than 70,000 white carnations, poinsettias, orchids, hydrangea and other flowers for the opening and the holidays.

"The architecture was trying to be very clean, very simple, very pure," Abeyta said. "When you think about the landmarks in the District, they are very pure forms."

The resort stands atop a parking garage base that steps up like a pyramid. A 24-story hotel rises out of its east end and offers 308 rooms. Nightly rates start at $799 for the first few days, but the cheapest rooms can be had for $200 and $300 after opening weekend.

The casino offers slots, table games and poker, a spa and restaurants — including a steakhouse by the Voltaggio brothers and a pastry shop with a 26-foot-tall chocolate fountain mimicking a larger one at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, also owned by MGM Resorts International.

Art in the resort's public spaces includes a metal sculpture by Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter and Nobel laureate. Among the shops is a boutique actress Sarah Jessica Parker is opening that features her line of shoes, accessories and other products.

"They're differentiating themselves," said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "They've invested a lot in entertainment, they have a lot of dining. They're saying, 'This is not your local casino with slot machines and a buffet — this is something on a bigger scale.'"

The combined revenue of Maryland's five casinos was up 7.8 percent through the first three quarters of the year compared to 2015. Through October, they've generated nearly $1 billion in combined revenue this year.

"Mid-Atlantic casino players would much prefer to stay closer to home and play in the suburbs of Baltimore or Philadelphia or, soon, Washington," said James Karmel, a casino analyst and history professor at Harford Community College.

Meanwhile, casino revenue in Nevada and New Jersey has been flat. Five Atlantic City casinos have shut down since 2014 as "destination gambling" loses some ground to casinos closer to players' homes.

Under Maryland law, the state's existing casinos will get to keep more of their slot machine earnings once MGM opens. Maryland Live will pay 36 percent of slots revenue to the education fund instead of the current 43 percent. Horseshoe's contribution will decrease from 45 percent to 39 percent. The share of their revenue going to support the state's horse industry will drop a percentage point to 6 percent.

The assumption behind lowering their taxes was they would yield some of their market when MGM arrived.

"This is a way of compensating them for the change of conditions by adding another competitor," Medenica said.

Before MGM was awarded its site license and before Horseshoe even opened, a 2013 study by Colorado-based consultant Jim Oberkirsch predicted that a Prince George's County casino would take 23 percent of Maryland Live's revenue and 14 percent of Horseshoe's.

Medenica, industry pundits and those rival casinos said that forecast now seems outdated.

"We've run our own numbers, and we're looking forward to the competition and ultimately how things shake out," said Maryland Live president Robert Norton, who declined to release the figures.

The region has a bigger appetite for table games than originally believed. Also, Maryland Live, which opened in 2012, has not suffered the revenue losses expected from the arrival of Horseshoe in 2014.

"Our revenues today are higher than before Horseshoe opened," said David Cordish, chairman of The Cordish Cos., which owns Maryland Live and plans to add a hotel there.

At Horseshoe, "we're confident that that the products and entertainment offerings we provide will continue to be successful," said Noah Hirsch, Horseshoe's vice president of marketing.

Both Maryland Live and Horseshoe also offer entertainment but on a smaller scale.

Even with six casinos, Maryland may find enough new business to keep all the establishments relatively prosperous, said Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA Corp., which publishes industry newsletters.

"I would not be surprised to see double-digit growth in Maryland," Woinski said. "In the old days, that's what casinos did — they grew the market and not just cannibalized it."

The biggest challenge facing MGM may be one that's unavoidable in the heavily-traveled Interstate 95 corridor around Washington: traffic.

"Initially, it's going to be pretty horrible around there to get around," Woinski said.

"We can hardly breathe now — it's already bad," said Prince George's County Council member Obie Patterson. "Even 100 cars are going to increase the pain."

The MGM's parking garage can accommodate 5,000.

The resort, which says it has invested more than $10 million in traffic projects, including signals and more entrances off Interstate 495, asks visitors on its website to consider public transportation, Uber or other options.

But at the end of the day, boosters said MGM's location is tough to beat.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Gantz contributed to this article.

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