In saturated East Coast casino market, MGM deal in Maryland stands apart

Executives bullish on location in affluent Washington area near nation's capital

  • A rendering of the MGM National Harbor complex.
A rendering of the MGM National Harbor complex. ( MGM National Harbor Rendering )
December 28, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

Diplomats and businessmen from around the globe. Tourists from across the country. Day-trippers from neighboring states.

They flock to the nation's capital for commerce and pleasure and might also try their luck at a planned MGM casino near the National Harbor development, high on a bluff above the Potomac River and just south of Washington. MGM says more than two-thirds of the visitors to the resort are expected to come from outside Maryland.

Such an international destination could transform a Maryland gambling industry that until now has mostly focused on creating a regional foothold. The $925 million facility, which MGM hopes to complete by 2016, could draw residents from the affluent Washington region and high rollers from overseas, analysts said.

The MGM development would vie with more established casinos to be the premier East Coast gambling resort. The opportunity is a rare one, analysts said, as destinations such as Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas have been bruised by the recession and many casino operators are looking outside the United States for growth.

Alex Bumazhny, director at Fitch Ratings, which provides analysis of the gaming industry, said the Prince George's County casino license could be the most lucrative awarded in the United States in the past decade.

MGM Resorts International "really went out of their way," Bumazhny said of efforts by the Las Vegas-based company to win the license, "and probably rightfully so."

Dressed in sharp suits and wearing wide grins, MGM executives shook hands and slapped each other on the back Dec. 20 in a nondescript conference room at the Maryland Lottery headquarters in Baltimore. Tens of millions of dollars in speculative investment — staked on the potential of the region's affluence and gravitational pull for tourists — had finally paid off.

MGM beat out Penn National Gaming, which had proposed a $700 million facility at its Rosecroft Raceway harness track in Fort Washington, and Greenwood Racing, which proposed a $761 million facility off Indian Head Highway.

The development promised by MGM calls for 3,600 slot machines and 140 table games at the casino, a 21-story hotel and spa, seven restaurants, and a 1,200-seat theater.

"We are not viewing this as a local's casino," MGM spokesman Gordon Absher said. "We're viewing this resort the same way we view our resorts in Las Vegas. We are looking to attract visitors from outside the state and outside the country."

In less than five years, Maryland has become a billion-dollar-a-year gambling state, largely on the stronger-than-expected performance of the Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills mall. MGM National Harbor promises to push state revenues higher.

Consultants for the state estimate that MGM National Harbor will take in $713 million to $719 million in annual revenue. In its fifth year, consultants estimate the facility will generate about $374 million in gambling, property, sales, income and hotel taxes.

Bumazhny said the revenue estimate for the Prince George's facility is a huge number in today's casino market, where saturation on the East Coast in the past decade has driven down the revenue potential of any one facility.

More than $700 million in annual revenue would make that one casino larger than several casino markets, such as Reno, Nev., and New Orleans, based on last year's revenue, according to the American Gaming Association.

"It's a large number, but I think it's feasible in terms of the supply and demand in the market," Bumazhny said.

MGM's Absher said the company has databases of millions of customers, many who live along the East Coast and others around the world, that it will use in attracting players to National Harbor. It uses the same databases to keep occupancy rates in its 40,000 Las Vegas hotel rooms routinely above 85 percent, he said.

"Bringing the power of that brand equity to the Maryland gaming and entertainment industry is obviously a plus," he said. "Combine that with the visibility of this location, we think that's going to be a very powerful draw and that will help Maryland attract tourists."

But uncertainty hovers over the entire industry. The National Harbor plan comes at a time when gambling markets are being reshaped.

The Las Vegas Strip, where MGM is heavily invested, is only now beginning to climb out of the recession with convention business returning, Bumazhny said. Atlantic City is still performing poorly, losing business to Pennsylvania, Maryland and other nearby states.

Online gambling in New Jersey — which began last month — is poised to shore up the state's gambling revenues, but it could also cannibalize profits from Atlantic City casinos, Bumazhny said. Casinos must ensure that players are located in New Jersey to qualify them for online gambling.

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