Whose National Harbor Is It Anyway?
"This Place Changes Everything," say promotional materials for the new National Harbor, the $4 billion, 300-acre development along the Potomac River in Prince George's County.
It certainly changed things for more than 60 people who attended one of the first conferences at the Gaylord National Resort, the complex's centerpiece hotel. They got royally ill after their stay, the result, county health officials said, of a norovirus.
It's also changed things for guests at the 2,000-room hotel who say the place is already well-booked up with a less desirable class of traveler: field mice.
Even before its first attractions opened, National Harbor was making enemies. Developer Milton Peterson's decision to buy and move Washington's beloved outdoor sculpture, the Awakening, from its longtime home at Hains Point, alerted the public to the idea that National Harbor is designed to lure tourists and conventions away from the District -- a potential blow to a city heavily dependent on visitors for tax revenue.
Now, Peterson has locked horns with Maryland lawmakers over the fate of as many as 40 liquor licenses for eateries and nightclubs that are to open at National Harbor. The legislature in Annapolis adjourned last week without approving the licenses. This latest fight puts Maryland politicians, who approved hundreds of millions in public subsidies for the ambitious riverfront project, in the position of undermining its success. The issue is what some see as an insufficient commitment to Prince George's businesses and contractors.
Peterson, who did not respond to my request for comment, is a tough, creative guy who can take care of himself. And most of National Harbor's problems are fleeting. A virus can hit anywhere, mice can be exterminated and liquor licenses are available from the county as well as from the state.
But the lingering obstacle Peterson may face is the belief among Prince George's powerful and ordinary alike that National Harbor is not meant for them -- not as a playground, not as a symbol of the county and not as an employer.
"They asked for and received $250 million in taxpayer money from the county, and they have an obligation to at least be friendly to the community," says state Sen. Anthony Muse. Upon learning that just 12 of 361 National Harbor contracts went to minority businesses in Prince George's, Muse drafted a letter to Peterson in which he proposed reopening all bids for contracts at the project and said that a minimum of 15 percent of contracts should go to local minority businesses.
At a statehouse meeting last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley characterized Muse's approach as something that might be seen as a "shakedown." Earlier, Muse and Senate President Mike Miller became angry enough that a state trooper felt compelled to check out the situation, The Post reported.
"We have a right and obligation to make sure they pay attention to the concerns of the community," Muse tells me. "My letter was a draft of concerns, simply saying here's what we want to say."
National Harbor was a decade in the talking before the first earthmover arrived at what locals knew as Eagle's Cove. Donna Edwards, who this winter ousted Rep. Al Wynn in the Democratic primary for his congressional seat, rose to public prominence as a resident and lawyer fighting the original plan for National Harbor. Now she, like Muse, wonders whether the county should have driven a tougher deal, insisting that in exchange for tax support, the developer commit to greater use of local contractors.
"I've been disappointed," she says. "It's not enough to set a goal as an aspiration; you need to require the developer to meet levels set by the community."
But unlike Muse, Edwards wants the liquor license fight to end, now. "The same people who are up in arms about minority contracting now are the ones who failed to demand clear contracting goals from the start," she says. "I question leadership that waits until the eleventh hour."
Shakedown or quid pro quo for public dollars -- whatever you want to call it, that's the price developers pay if they want government money for their projects. In a perfect world, developers would do their own thing without public handouts and without the accompanying political payback.
But this is how big projects get done, and it's important to see all the players for what they are -- actors in a role. Today Muse says he's not sure whether Peterson really cares about Prince George's, but rest assured his tune will change as soon as the developer swallows his pride and cuts a deal to hire more county-based minority contractors.
And Edwards, who spent years battling the project but came to support it after Peterson agreed to a public hiking trail along the river and other environmental and traffic concessions, is so ready to let bygones be bygones that she's entered into a contract of her own.
She's bought a condo at National Harbor and expects to move in this fall.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Terry in Maryland | April 13, 2008 11:45 AM
Posted by: Anonymous | April 13, 2008 11:53 AM
Posted by: No Taxes | April 13, 2008 1:28 PM
Posted by: Equality for ALL | April 13, 2008 2:50 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | April 13, 2008 3:05 PM
Posted by: Rolling my eyes at more of the same... | April 13, 2008 3:11 PM
Posted by: Hillman | April 13, 2008 3:53 PM
Posted by: 4th via Home Floor | April 13, 2008 4:06 PM
Posted by: gwt301 | April 13, 2008 4:25 PM
Posted by: She's fake | April 13, 2008 4:38 PM
Posted by: JackLA | April 13, 2008 5:32 PM
Posted by: staticphoto | April 13, 2008 6:57 PM
Posted by: quarterpast | April 13, 2008 8:10 PM
Posted by: Denisew | April 13, 2008 10:01 PM
Posted by: Hillman | April 13, 2008 11:29 PM
Posted by: Jerry Mathis | April 14, 2008 10:35 AM
Posted by: down with me | April 15, 2008 12:56 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | April 15, 2008 4:31 PM
Posted by: Can't Take No More | April 15, 2008 6:23 PM
Posted by: quarterpast | April 15, 2008 10:55 PM
Posted by: MikeH | April 16, 2008 12:04 PM
Posted by: A Change Must Come | April 16, 2008 2:21 PM
Posted by: Warren | April 16, 2008 4:31 PM
Posted by: A Change Must Come | April 18, 2008 6:10 PM
Posted by: Warren | April 19, 2008 10:57 AM
Posted by: edjackson | April 19, 2008 11:18 AM
Posted by: jd | April 19, 2008 12:21 PM
Posted by: A Change Must Come | April 21, 2008 4:13 PM
Posted by: An Outsider Looking In | April 22, 2008 12:59 AM
Posted by: A Change Must Come | April 22, 2008 1:11 PM
Posted by: Jackie | April 23, 2008 6:59 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.