Shop owners, gambling experts react to National Harbor casino

NATIONAL HARBOR - Potomac Gourmet Market sits just a block away from MGM Resorts International's new visitor center at National Harbor.

It is one of dozens of local businesses that may be affected by the outcome of Question 7, the Maryland ballot item that could decide whether MGM will be allowed to build a casino at the Prince George's County site. The visitor center opened in September as part of MGM's campaign to win approval for a destination casino.

Potomac Gourmet Market Manager Leonard Knight is confident the addition of a casino to National Harbor would bring business to his store.

"There's a lot of people who don't come to National Harbor because there's not a destination," Knight said. With the addition of a casino, "they'll come from Virginia, some parts of Washington, D.C., and create more foot traffic."

Knight is not alone in his optimism about the business prospects a casino could hold for National Harbor stores. Bob Turner, manager of nearby Thai Pavilion restaurant, agreed that a casino could help shape the harbor into a destination.

"I think even families will come, where dad likes to gamble, and mom and kids will go out in D.C.," Turner said.

The difference between a possible National Harbor casino and other casinos across the country is tourists, said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Older casinos were often dropped into small or mid-sized towns and have tended to be a "black hole" that sucks business away from local stores, Eadington said.

National Harbor has a non-local pool of customers to draw from, however.

"Gamblers who come out of the local community tend to be much more gambling-centric," Eadington said. "People who are visiting from out of town - they're going to act much more like tourists."

That means more casino-goers will explore the local community, including its stores and restaurants, he said. The short walking distance to local shops in a pedestrian-friendly area bodes well for National Harbor's business owners.

Still, planning would be key to shaping how the casino integrates into the community, Eadington said.

A hands-on approach has helped some cities maintain traffic through local businesses in the presence of casinos, he said.

New Orleans originally barred any on-site restaurants or hotels when it brought casinos to the city, for example.

MGM does not yet have specific plans for the casino's construction, said Joseph Pistorio, communications manager for the Luxor and Excalibur hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.

MGM would look to its sister casinos in Las Vegas and Detroit as models for integration, he said.

"When people come to Las Vegas, they stay in one hotel and travel around and see the sights," he said. "We want people to see not only what we have to offer, but to see National Harbor."

But some are skeptical about the benefits of bringing a casino to the area, charging that it would channel business into its doors and out of the community.

"They're designed to be bubbles," said Jeff Hooke, a Bethesda-based gambling analyst and chairman of the Maryland Tax Education Foundation, a group that maintains that adding a sixth casino in Maryland could cut tax revenue.

"Casino gambling is a form of leisure - a substitute for going to the movies or bowling," Hooke said. "If you're going to spend some leisure dollars gambling, you're not going to the movies or out to dinner as much."

Stephen Hartsock, a server at Thai Pavilion and self-proclaimed gambling aficionado, agreed: "Once you get in the casino, you don't leave."

If Question 7 passes, the casino at National Harbor would not be built until around 2014, Pistorio said.