MGM’s new casino sits seven miles south of the White House and is filled with hat tips and homages to life in the nation’s capital. George Washington’s dignified dollar-bill mug is plastered outside guest-room toilets. One bar is meant to evoke the National Archives. Another, the Blossom lounge, has hanging pink lights shaped like the area’s iconic cherry trees.
There are even shameless land grabs, as with the marketing of the MGM National Harbor’s showy Chairman Suite. “These are the 3,210 most coveted square feet in Washington,” the booking site reads breathlessly.
But this is not Washington. The new resort sits down a clogged highway where the Capital Beltway and the Potomac River meet in suburban Maryland’s Prince George’s County.
And that Copperfieldian bit of geographic hocus-pocus is at the heart of the entire enterprise. The way people navigate that tension across the District-Maryland line — and beyond — will help determine whether this glitzy new neighbor succeeds, and what lasting imprint it leaves.
The $1.4 billion casino complex has the potential to do two things. It may prove to be the economic boon its boosters have promised the county of 900,000. It could also change the rituals of Washington’s K Street lobbying set, adding slot machines, craps and poker to the expense-account meals and other perks in the power broker’s tool kit.
Dealer Stacie Bradford deals the very first poker game at MGM National Harbor on opening night. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
As thousands of inaugural customers stormed the new resort in its opening days, at times pressing against burly human barricades and the pure physics of local roads, there were signs Washington was getting drawn in.
Standing beneath a gleaming sculpture of Ben Franklin and Chinese strongman Mao Zedong leaping out of their respective currencies for a boxing match, attorney Jay Halpern of Potomac, Md., tried to project the casino’s future.
“It will be interesting to see, 10 years from now, what history says this was like,” Halpern said. “It’s either going to be a phenomenal success or ‘What was that thing?’ ”
Halpern put MGM National Harbor on a probation of sorts before walking through its glass doors. He had purchased seats in the resort’s intimate theater for next year — a tribute to ’60s and ’70s rockers The Band — but was willing to dump them on StubHub if he wasn’t impressed. Now he and his wife, ghost blogger Amy Halpern, were describing the joys of José Andrés’s tuna tartare and said they are psyched to return for an overnight stay.
His prediction? “This will be good to great. It’s not going to be the Atlantic City debacle,” Halpern said.
“It’s nothing like the rest of Washington,” Amy Halpern said. “This is Vegas on the Potomac.”
These were the words Patrick Fisher, an ebullient MGM hotel executive who went to high school in Prince George’s, had risked his future to hear.
“This is going to be the showpiece — the shining light — for all of D.C.,” Fisher said. He left a job at the Ritz-Carlton downtown for the chance at MGM. “This is where I saw myself for the next 50 years. . . . We’re going to provide an elevated level of service that’s never been seen in this region.”
His high-end competition largely gave the new kid a pass on rhetorical excess.
Liliana Baldassari, director of public relations for the Four Seasons in Georgetown, said she welcomed MGM’s new casino and shows and understands the imperatives behind the posturing, particularly for visitors from afar.
“They need to present themselves as part of Washington, D.C., because nobody knows about National Harbor,” Baldassari said. As for as accommodations, “we’ve been open for 37 years. The level of luxury you get here is the top in the city.”
MGM, with its “This is Monumental” tagline, has also been advertising on billboards at Verizon Center, seeking to reach those wallets. Might swamp-dwellers and their clients prefer to see Bruno Mars up close at MGM’s 3,000-seat theater rather than Verizon’s 20,000-seat arena?
A spokeswoman for Verizon’s owner, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, insisted that MGM’s arrival is a “win-win for the area,” since it offers “a whole new spectrum of entertainment offerings” and will just “add to the many reasons” people visit.
Prince George’s has hungered for a high-end entertainment venue, but also a bigger role in the collective consciousness of Washington.
“I believe in this county,” said artist Margaret Boozer. She spent the last year building a piece of wall art from 10,000 pounds of clay dug out of the MGM construction site and hauled in a Ryder truck to her Mount Rainier studio. The topographical relief was inspired, in part, by regional maps from the 1800s and now fills a lobby wall in the hotel.
“How people refer to it indicates what kind of conversation they’re rally wanting to have. I think people who say ‘Washington’ are trying to have a more national or international discussion,” Boozer said. “But those of us who live here have real pride in our home. And we want to claim it as ours.”
Still, some are wary.
At the MGM, bartenders have cooked up a $14 cocktail dubbed the “Congress Heights,” which features Dominican rum, lime, mint, spiced cranberry syrup, seltzer and orange bitters.
On a corner in Congress Heights, the view is less sweet.
“This is a K2 neighborhood,” said Will Bonnette, standing on a stretch of District sidewalk where a flood of synthetic marijuana and an open-air PCP market have fueled addiction. As he peered down a commercial strip shared by drunk pedestrians, parents picking up their kids from day care and a towering mural of Martin Luther King Jr., a young pregnant woman walked up and begged him for $2.
Bonnette, who lives in Prince George’s and directs a mental-health and substance-abuse program that serves Congress Heights, called it “absolutely insensitive” and a “mockery” to name a drink after a place with “some of the poorest outcomes in regards to health care, employment and social justice.”
(There is also a bourbon-based “Foggy Bottom” and vodka-infused “Potomac Sunset.”)
And he fears the excesses some associate with Las Vegas — “in other words, sex and drugs” — will bring people down in struggling District and Maryland neighborhoods.
“They really don’t have our best interests in mind at all,” Bonnette said.
But the economic arguments resonate with many.
“It’ll open more jobs for people. That’s an A-plus for P.G. County for sure,” said Troy Ray, who lives in Oxon Hill, a few minutes from the casino.
Tyrone Whitby says what matters is someone believed in “Gorgeous Prince George’s,” and companies and people will follow.
“It attracts people who don’t have a clue about Prince George’s. We’re getting worldwide recognition this county would have never gotten before,” said Whitby, a District resident who works in Prince George’s real estate.
But recognition and a development coup won’t necessarily result in a transformation.
Take the Landover area in Prince George’s, where the Capital Centre hosted the then-Washington Bullets before the NBA team moved to the District. Just before the once-bustling arena was torn down in 2002 to make way for a development that would bring a Chuck E. Cheese, one official found a parable of sorts.
“I saw the great Muhammad Ali fight Holmes here. It was one of the sad times in my life,” said former county executive Jack B. Johnson. “Muhammad Ali lost that fight. You could see the decline of Muhammad Ali and his fighting, just like we saw this building age. All of us age and have to move on. And something new has to come in.”
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), a former slots opponent, calls MGM’s launch “a watershed moment.”
Many doubt whether gambling’s thrills — with the “Breaking Bad” slots and purple-collared dealers and hundreds of millions in revenue — can really reorder much about Washington.
“There will be some action around their craps tables and stuff,” said Frank Smith, a former D.C. Council member, but “the real action is still here.”
Smith heads the African American Civil War Museum in the city’s historic U Street area, a booming neighborhood once ravaged by riots. He hopes to lure MGM’s customers.
Washington is the “epitome of American democracy. This is where it all happens,” Smith said. “If you want the real thing, you still have to cross the border.”
Still, for gambling regulars, the MGM National Harbor’s pull is strong.
“I’ll start out with $500,” said James Pittman, an overnight Metro track worker who lives in Bowie and took a vacation day to see the casino up close. He was daunted by overflow crowds but was impressed with the freshness, including new craps tables.
“It’s so spongy, the dice are bouncing around real easy,” Pittman said. “This is all-night entertainment you don’t have in the area. This fits right in with the buildup of D.C.”
Michele Fisher runs a cat resort in Falls Church, Va., with an old friend from Texas, Angie Boggs. They gamble together weekly and were each feeding twenties into the Playboy Platinum slots.
Fisher put in $40 and kept tapping the button with her sparkly red thumbnail. She cashed out at $200. Boggs lost $60.
“This is our fun time. This is what we do,” Fisher said. “Don’t make us sound sad. It’s actually not.”
Peering at a sparkling, multistory Christmas set piece soaring toward a glass ceiling, retiree Aurelia Marshall was awestruck.
She had come to celebrate life with two friends who helped her manage her mother’s nine-year decline and dementia before her passing.
“Oh my God! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” said Marshall, who worked logistics at a naval ordnance facility in Indian Head, in nearby Charles County. “I’m 69 years old. I’m so glad I’ve lived long enough to see this.”
Baccarat is a nice escape after some tough times.
“Now I can live my life and have a little bit of fun,” Marshall said.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."