Gaylord Breaks Ground on New Maryland Convention Center

Wed December 15, 2004 - Northeast Edition

OXON HILL (AP) Work officially began Thursday, Dec. 2, on the massive National Harbor hotel and convention center in Prince George’s County as questions remained over how the site would play into Maryland’s debate over slot machines.

With fireworks, champagne and many speeches, elected officials, developers and executives from the Nashville, TN, resort company Gaylord Entertainment broke ground on what will be the anchor of a $2-billion complex on the banks of the Potomac River.

Construction comes more than 20 years after development was proposed on the land just below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge within sight of the Washington monument. Other proposals failed, and the Gaylord project languished for several years before work began.

Prince George’s leaders hope National Harbor, which is expected to eventually include shops and offices, will draw more development into a county that has trailed its regional neighbors in economic development.

“The gateway is open and the flood is going to come in,” said County Executive Jack Johnson.

It is still unclear what role National Harbor will play in the ongoing debate over slots in Maryland.

Gaylord President Colin Reed said the company won’t put slots at the resort even if the General Assembly approves Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s proposal for slot gambling. Johnson opposes slots anywhere in the county, calling it “a tax on the poor.”

But the family of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos recently struck a deal to buy the nearby Rosecroft Raceway and announced plans to put slots and hotel on the site. And Ehrlich has indicated that National Harbor, which sits near Washington and Virginia, could be a good site for slots.

“You could certainly make the case for it,” he said after the groundbreaking.

Ehrlich’s proposal to raise money through slots will likely be debated for a third straight year when the General Assembly convenes in January. But the governor said it won’t be worthwhile to introduce legislation if House Speaker Michael Busch continues to oppose the plan.

The first phase of the National Harbor project will be the Gaylord resort, made up of a 1,500-room hotel, 400,000-sq.-ft. convention center, a spa and a private marina. It is expected to open in 2008.

Plans call for a retail, entertainment and office complex to eventually develop around the hotel. Reed said Gaylord’s resort should create 1,850 jobs and have a $350 million direct impact on the county over the next 30 years.

Gaylord owns the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and three other resorts similar to the National Harbor project. Reed said National Harbor could compete with nearby Washington’s convention industry even though it is 10 mi. from downtown.

The site is near the Wilson Bridge and will have everything in one place — a hotel, restaurants and the convention center, he said. Four conferences have already been booked in 2008 and 2009.

“We’ve got everything right here,” Reed said.

Local activists who sued unsuccessfully to stop the project said Johnson and developer Milton Peterson eventually made compromises on issues like traffic and investment in the surrounding community.

Bonnie Bick said the Campaign to Invest in the Heart of Oxon Hill is still opposed to slots at Rosecroft and National Harbor, but commended local officials for hearing their concerns.

“We were on the outside, but now we’re working together,” Bick said.