Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief of staff and his two top legislative affairs staff members yesterday toured National Harbor in Prince George's County -- a development project that has been labeled a possible site for a "destination resort" casino if Maryland legalizes gambling.
Steven K. Kreseski, the governor's chief of staff, said the developers had asked members of the governor's staff several months ago to visit the Oxon Hill site.
National Harbor is a planned $2 billion waterfront hotel, shopping and entertainment complex along the Potomac River near Washington being developed by the Peterson Cos. of Fairfax, Va. Site work is under way but no buildings have been erected.
Developer Milton Peterson took the group -- which included Kreseski, legislative affairs staff members Kenneth Masters and Donald Hogan Jr., and lobbyist John Stierhoff, on a 45-minute driving tour of the site.
Stierhoff is one of the Peterson Cos.' lobbyists in Annapolis, along with former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
National Harbor has become a key element in the debate over legalizing slots in Maryland.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn and some Prince George's legislators have pushed for a casino there with table games such as blackjack and craps, in addition to thousands of slots machines.
They argue that full-scale casinos would generate more jobs and economic development for Prince George's than a slots-only facility.
Legislative proposals over the past two years, however, have called for legalizing slot machines only at several other sites -- including one planned for Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track that is a short distance from National Harbor.
The family of Baltimore trial lawyer Peter G. Angelos, a political player in Annapolis, recently struck a deal to buy Rosecroft.
Kreseski said most of the discussion yesterday was about road construction near the National Harbor site, environmental issues and the dredging of the Potomac River.
He said the topic of slot machines and casino-style gambling came up only briefly during the tour.
"They did not bring it up. I brought it up in the context of venue -- whether the project is affected if the state is unable to reach a slots agreement," Kreseski said.
He said Peterson assured the group that development of the site does not depend on the state's approval of slots or casino-style gambling.
Stierhoff also said the slots issue came up only briefly during yesterday's tour.
"Slots was part of a broader conversation, but it was not the purpose of the visit," he said. "We were discussing all aspects of this project."
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and staunch slots opponent, said he suspects that the meeting had a lot to do with trying to work out an arrangement for slots.
"The Ehrlich administration cannot take one step without thinking about slot machines," Franchot said.