OXON HILL - After more than two decades of fits and starts, a who's who of Maryland politics will gather today on pristine waterfront along the Potomac River in Prince George's County to launch what is being described as the largest single commercial venture in the history of the state.
The centerpiece of National Harbor - in its first phase alone, a $500 million project - will be a mega-resort and convention center with 1,500 hotel rooms, 400,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, and a soaring 18-story atrium, being built by the owners of the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
More hotels, restaurants and shopping space are planned for the future.
The site, a one-time sand and gravel pit, has been betrothed many times over the years. It was going to be a world trade center. Luxury condos. A marina. Nine years after a Virginia developer bought the 540-acre property, ground is finally being broken.
"For a long time, very few people invested in Prince George's County," County Executive Jack B. Johnson said yesterday. "We were not able to get any of the major companies to come here. This is a big paradigm shift for us. It shifts the way people see us and the way we see ourselves."
This affluent, predominantly African-American county has long complained of being shunned by upscale retailers. A study commissioned by the county shows Prince George's has 115,000 households with incomes above $75,000 - more than Howard or Anne Arundel counties, Johnson said.
Tide is turning
Local officials say the development tide has only recently started to turn. Housing prices are on the rise and developers are fighting to build expensive homes here.
And the seeds of retail have been planted - a mall on the site of the old USAirways Arena is a success, as is Magic Johnson's movie theater, which just opened in Largo.
At National Harbor, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on the Potomac is scheduled for a March 2008 opening. National Harbor's developer - the Fairfax, Va.-based Peterson Cos. - will add 500 hotel rooms in the first phase, and continuous work is expected over the next three to seven years to put up offices, shopping and condos.
Hungry for prestige
Wayne K. Curry, Johnson's predecessor as county executive, is clearly delighted that dirt is starting to turn.
"This makes even the upscale hotels look a bit seedy," Curry said. "It's prestigious, which is what people here have hungered for. It is a clear statement the place has arrived, and I say arrived in style, elegance."
The county, Curry said, has "overcome history and the derogatory treatment this place has gotten."
While it might be a symbol for progress, National Harbor will also be a huge addition to the county's tax base that could mean thousands of jobs.
Bonnie Bick can almost see the site from the deck behind the home where she has lived, on and off, since she was 6 years old.
As a child she would walk down to the gravel pits and watch the men at work - though the real highlight was the view of the river. Sometimes she would lie down on Oxon Hill Road, her ear to the ground to listen for cars in the distance.
Now she is 61. Oxon Hill Road is a speedy cut-through. Pulling out of her driveway is an adventure. She has watched for years as different developers made various proposals for what to do with the land down the road.
And she has been a leader of a group that has sued to stop National Harbor, with environmental concerns and worries about traffic congestion.
Company President Milton Peterson made peace with the group - the Campaign to Reinvest in the Heart of Oxon Hill - with a series of compromises.
He agreed to provide public access to the shoreline, to help redevelop the deteriorating shopping centers nearby, to push for Metro service at National Harbor and in Oxon Hill, to put some homes inside the complex to assure it does not become a wild and chaotic nightspot.
Concerns about slots
Still, Bick remains worried there will be pressure to allow a slots parlor. Some supporters of legalizing such gambling in Maryland have mentioned the waterfront haven as a perfect spot for slot machines.
The hotel chain says it's not interested in gambling at the property. Johnson said he is against it. But Andre Gingles, a spokesman for Peterson Cos., said he has "no comment on slots."
Bick and others have vowed to fight any attempts to allow slot machines at the nearby Rosecroft horse track or National Harbor.
"It's incredibly clear to me that bringing gambling into our community is exactly 10 steps backward from where we want to go," said Donna Edwards, another community activist.
Bick wants to focus on the positive. She even finds herself calling Peterson a "hero" for limiting the development's impact on her neighborhood and for listening to its concerns.
In many circles, Peterson, who was also involved in the highly promoted redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring, is being given credit for sticking with the National Harbor project, even when things looked rough.
The announcement that Gaylord Hotels would locate at National Harbor came almost five years ago. But then came the Sept. 11 attacks, which were a blow to the hospitality industry. Gaylord used the delay to put its financial house in order, said spokesman Greg Rossiter.
Then there were endless reviews by county, state and federal agencies. Prince George's County had to approve money for the project - $90 million for the convention center and $70 million for infrastructure, Johnson said. And, of course, the lawsuits from Bick's group slowed things down.
"Previous folks got frustrated," Gingles said. Milton Peterson "was determined to make it go."
Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's Democrat, also speaks highly of Peterson. "He is experienced and savvy and he's willing to listen and willing to compromise," Wynn said. "A lot of guys have these huge egos and view what they're doing as a favor. Milt's not like that. He's very regular and down-to-earth."
Bick and Edwards will be at today's groundbreaking, much to their own surprise. Johnson plans to thank them in his speech for bringing their concerns to the table.
"I would not have predicted a year ago that I would be at the groundbreaking. I would have predicted I would be outside the gate holding a sign protesting," Edwards said.
"This is an example of a developer and the community fighting it out, a very legitimate battle, and coming out with something we can all be proud of."