Anyone who has driven across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the past two years has seen the construction site of the massive MGM casino resort at National Harbor. Agenda: Alexandria, a public discussion forum that focuses on a variety of issues in the area, met on September 26 to address the potential effects of the new casino.
Although the new MGM location is within the boundaries of Prince George’s (PG) County, many Alexandria residents and financial experts believe that the opening of this resort will initiate growth in the tourism of Alexandria. The view of Old Town from the resort could potentially increase business in Old Town and along King Street. Joe Haggerty, President and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, said, “There will definitely be an influx of business to the area. We need to figure out our strategy for bringing people over to visit Alexandria.”
Danielle White, Regional Vice President of MGM Resorts International, said the new MGM resort will have a significant effect on Alexandria. “Alexandria is a different state, but not necessarily a different neighborhood. We want to make sure we contribute to your growth,” said White. The MGM hotel at National Harbor will be one of the company’s smaller ones, so White predicts that many visitors will stay in Alexandria hotels due to the lack of space. A bus route from the King Street Metro Station to the MGM has already been approved.
Considering that a large portion of MGM’s business at the National Harbor location will come from gambling, the resort has raised many questions about the potential effects on the local population. The prediction is that residents of PG County as well as tourists staying at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor will visit the MGM resort. “At this point, we really don’t know which demographic will attend,” said White.
According to Haggerty, a number of people have shown concern about how casino gambling will affect the look and culture of the surrounding area. The assumption that there is a direct connection between gambling and organized crime has lead many residents to believe that the casino will cause problems for PG County and the nearby DC-Metro areas. “We have nothing to do with organized crime,” said White. “We are a Fortune 500 company just like Marriott, Four Seasons, etc. There are no safeguards to be had; everything is on the up and up. We are a vigorously regulated company and we take our business and gaming license very seriously.”
In order to combat the potential for problem gambling, all casino employees will be trained to recognize a problem gambler and take the necessary steps to get help. “That is not the type of customer we want to have,” said White. At the MGM resort, you must be 21 or older to enter the casino floor. There is no sports betting allowed.
In the wake of concerns about the casino’s local effects, MGM Resorts International has made significant efforts to improve the appearance and functionality of the surrounding neighborhood. As part of its Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with PG County, MGM renovated the former Thomas Edison school building, which was rundown and neglected, in the surrounding neighborhood and transformed it into an employee training facility. When MGM no longer needs it to train employees, the building will be donated back to the county. According to White, many residents of the area were extremely appreciative because the landscape has significantly improved.
In an effort to benefit the local economy and employment rate in PG County, the CBA also requires 40% of the MGM resort employees to be residents of PG County. By the fifth year of operation, this number will rise to 50%. Considering that approximately 3,600 employees will be hired, this agreement could open up the job market in PG County. “The key is making sure that when people come to the resort, they receive gold standard service,” said White.
The MGM resort will have much more to offer than just a casino, and it is estimated that only 30% of the profits will come from gambling. “The resort will be an attraction even without the gambling,” said White. “The complex and property itself is visually stunning.” The resort will feature celebrity chef restaurants, a sports bar, a theatre, a spa and a conservatory. There will be concerts, circuses, and numerous theatre performances. White said it will be “Vegas-level entertainment.”
At the Agenda meeting, Alexandria resident and historian Ted Pulliam also spoke about the extensive history of gambling in Alexandria. “Gambling is not a new concept to the area,” said Pulliam. During the 1800s, Alexandria was largely involved pool-room betting. Although the gambling was illegal in Virginia, participants could send their bets through a direct telegram to West Virginia where it was legal.
Horseracing was also a large part of gambling in Alexandria history. George Washington and John Carlyle, a leading landowner and political figure in Northern Virginia, were sponsors of horseracing in the area. There was a racetrack in what is now the Del Ray neighborhood.
Although Alexandria has seen a broad history of gambling in the past, the MGM casino will have a much different effect than pool-room betting and horseracing. With the resort set to open by the end of the year, National Harbor will have plenty of new attractions for both locals and tourists.