Project raises fears of gambling

Oxon Hill residents worry hotel complex linked to casino plan

September 16, 2001|By Greg Garland and David Nitkin | Greg Garland and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

OXON HILL - As bulldozers clear trees along the Potomac River to prepare for a $1.5 billion commercial hotel and entertainment complex known as National Harbor, some nearby residents are calling it a "stealth project" tied to future casino gambling.

The developers and the project's first major tenant insist that isn't the case, but some residents who are opposed to the project because of its impact on their neighborhoods argue that gambling is the only logical explanation for the huge investment there.

Their suspicions were further aroused this year when a company planning to build an Opryland convention hotel at the site hired two executives from casino company Harrah's Entertainment Inc. for top management positions.

The developer, Fairfax, Va.-based The Peterson Cos., has said that the National Harbor development will be a 24-hour entertainment destination with 10 theme hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, boutique shops and a deep-water port.

The company estimates that 12 million people a year will visit the site, which will consist of 7.25 million square feet of commercial space - equivalent in size to six major shopping malls.

"One has to ask the common-sense question: What has the potential to attract the millions of visitors and tourists that would come to a development of this type?" said Donna F. Edwards, a Fort Washington resident who opposes the project. "It has to be something more than casual tourist and retail convention services. Gambling has to be high on that list."

A 1995 legislative task force that looked at the possibility of commercial gambling for Maryland listed the Oxon Hill property as one of three "plausible sites" for casinos - because of its proximity to Virginia, the District of Columbia and the Capital Beltway.

Although gambling is illegal in Maryland, periodic attempts have been made in the General Assembly to introduce slot-machine or casino gambling into the state. Those efforts are expected to intensify as Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a resolute opponent of gambling, prepares to leave office at the end of next year.

Andre Gingles, a lawyer for The Peterson Cos., said opponents are just raising the specter of gambling as part of their continuing campaign against the project. He said the development has the support of most local and state elected officials and most residents in Prince George's County.

He said the nation's capital, less than 20 minutes from National Harbor, is a major tourist draw that will bring people to the development's waterfront hotels and other facilities.

Still, Edwards and other opponents like Bonnie Bick of Oxon Hill - part of a group called the Campaign to Reinvest in the Heart of Oxon Hill - say they are suspicious of the developers' intent. They say local officials who support National Harbor have given The Peterson Cos. carte blanche in developing the property.

`Has to be an attraction'

Thursday night, more than 150 neighborhood residents crowded into a stuffy elementary school gym to voice their complaints about the project. Many were upset about the county's plans to widen to four lanes the two-lane portion of Oxon Hill Road that runs through their neighborhoods. They say that would be to support traffic for National Harbor.

"They have said that this would attract 70,000 visitors on peak days," Bick said. "Why are all those people going there? It's not to have dinner or to go to a club. There has to be an attraction for something like that. If we were going to like what the attraction was, they would have told us what it was."

Even if National Harbor does not open a casino, the potential for commercial gambling in the future exists at nearby Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill.

Racetrack owners have been pressing for slots to boost purses, noting competition from West Virginia and Delaware. Both states allow slot machines at their tracks.

Thomas Chuckas Jr., chief executive officer of Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc., the company that manages Rosecroft, said he supports slots for the track, which he believes would benefit National Harbor as well. "If National Harbor is built and we had slots in Rosecroft, I believe there could be many synergies that would be beneficial for Rosecroft, for National Harbor and the county," Chuckas said.

However, Chuckas said, he and officials from The Peterson Cos. have not discussed slots at the track and how that might tie in to National Harbor.

Joseph C. Henson, a Fort Washington resident who heads a citizens association group, said rumors about what eventually might be built at National Harbor abound, but few facts are known. "The complaint we have is that it has become a stealth project," said Henson, who has been supportive of the development.

Glendening and top legislative leaders say they know of no push for gambling from principals involved in the National Harbor project. They also said prospects for a 2002 referendum on a constitutional amendment are dim.

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