An awakening on the banks of the Potomac River

July 27, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

A brief anecdote illustrates the shift of political power in Maryland away from Baltimore and south toward Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Several years go, while a large equestrian center opened in his district outside Upper Marlboro, I suggested to state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (in jest) that it was illegal to pour that much concrete outside Baltimore.

"Yeah, right," he said. Until around then, most of the big public works projects in Maryland - a convention center, a world trade tower, the subway, a concert hall and an aquarium - had been built in Baltimore.

The city needed the help, of course. But need wasn't as important as power: Baltimore had influential legislators and a succession of governors who owed their success to the city.

Since then, the city's population has declined, and with it the ability to command the kinds of projects that enabled the city's storied renaissance. The restriction on concrete poured outside the city limits quietly went away.

Moreover, city representatives no longer control the important money committees in Annapolis, including budget and tax and appropriations, and much more of the leadership is from south of Baltimore.

A startling example of the change can be glimpsed along the Potomac River in Prince George's County, adjacent to Washington. There, in the shadow of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, an almost incalculable volume of concrete has been folded into reconstruction of the bridge and connecting roads and ramps. It's support for the traffic generated along the Capital Beltway and its myriad tributaries.

One of the primary beneficiaries of this shift is National Harbor, the equivalent of a small new city of hotels, restaurants, office buildings and condominiums perched on a sloping hill with commanding views of the river's wide expanse.

In accord with an agreement between the National Harbor developers and the state, easy access from highway to harbor was provided at a cost of $124 million. The total cost of the massive interchange between the Wilson Bridge and surrounding roads has been put in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

This project helps to illustrate the way public works follows political power. It's a bow in the direction of Maryland's voting strength: About a third of the state's votes are cast in Montgomery and Prince George's.

This is not to suggest that government was the prime mover in what has been a 25-year undertaking. The current owner, Milton V. Peterson, took control of the project in the 1990s when an economic downturn pushed the first developer out of the game.

But in a broader sense, government had a great deal to do with the project's continuation and potential for success. It can, at least theoretically, compete with the District of Columbia for the convention trade. It will have five hotels, including one of the Gaylord properties. The company now has hotels in Nashville, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; and Dallas. About 1.7 million rooms were reserved at the National Harbor Gaylord before the doors opened.

Guests are shown onto the hotel property through an expansive lobby. One side of this indoor esplanade offers views of the river through what looks like a five- or six-story transparent glass wall. Long escalators lead to restaurants and shops along flower-bordered pathways with the accompaniment of indoor brooks.

Mr. Peterson has flatly rejected proposals that would have installed casinos on the property. But he's apparently quite willing to lure federal agencies and institutions across the river. The National Children's Museum is slated to open there in 2012 - and other organizations may follow, in the way federal agencies have moved out into Montgomery County and Northern Virginia.

The owner calls his investment, now approaching $100 million, a product of his "irrational exuberance." He has told friends and associates that the site "spoke" to him.

Art occasionally speaks to him as well. One of his recent acquisitions is something called The Awakening by J. Seward Johnson Jr., the sculpture of a giant human figure buried but struggling mightily to free itself.

Mr. Peterson hopes his project will be an example of humankind escaping the ooze with an awakening of sorts for Prince George's County, and for the Potomac River region, which he says has been underappreciated.

This project sets his commitment in concrete.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sunday in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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