Milt Peterson knew he was taking a huge gamble 16 years ago when The Peterson Companies committed to a grandiose plan to develop 350 acres of land on the banks of the Potomac River in Prince George's County. Building a mini-city with hotels, restaurants, condominiums and town homes was a crapshoot, but the Virginia-based real estate developer's expertise with distressed properties turned the risk – where others had failed – into a sure winner as National Harbor has become one of the Washington area's premier destinations.
Now Peterson finds himself rolling the dice again for a referendum to bring gaming to Prince George's County. He has invested more than $1 million for ads aimed at encouraging Maryland voters to vote "yes" for Question 7 on Nov. 6. He hopes this new gaming law, should it pass, will bring a world class destination MGM resort casino to National Harbor, along with millions in needed revenue and jobs for the county.
"We had said no to gaming for 12 years," said Peterson, 77. "They [politicians] asked us repeatedly, 'Would you do gaming?' "We had a very high quality place here, we thought we were aspiring to that, and we didn't want to denigrate that by having a slots bar."
Year after year, Peterson said, politicians continued asking him to bring slots to National Harbor, including County Executive Rushern Baker who approached Peterson on four separate occasions. "When Rushern came in [elected to office in 2011], he was smart, articulate, honest, a great guy ... but I still told him no, I'm not interested. We can't do that; we can't put slots in here."
But Peterson has since changed his mind. The product of a bible-bread family where playing cards were not allowed in his childhood home, he has since observed that people across the country are changing their attitudes about gaming. "The acceptance of gaming has changed. If you look back 10-12 years ago, there were only eight to nine states with casinos," Peterson said. "Today, there are 32 states with some form of legalized gambling."
Peterson said the fourth time Baker met with him, the county executive described the pressure he was under from state officials to get him to convince Peterson to put a casino at National Harbor. He said Baker offered him a better tax rate, and table games, and "the magic phrase" was that "we could have a destination resort that has a casino with amenities that include entertainment, a spa, and high-end retail."
Peterson said he's lost millions on the National Harbor and that regardless of the outcome of the election on Nov. 6, The Peterson Companies is committed to creating more development opportunities there. Tanger Outlet, a high-end retail outlet mall, is scheduled to open in 2013, and more town homes are scheduled to be built. And, even if the referendum passes, the casino won't open until 2016 and Peterson said it would take 10 years before Peterson Companies will see a profit.
"Prince George's County needs some momentum," Peterson said. "This economy right now is still pretty sick. Maryland has lost jobs and that's symptomatic of the economy. Prince George's County needs development, but where is it?" South Prince George's County, he said, is particularly in need of greater development to serve the highly educated, high-income residents who live there.
"If we can get this done, we'll have the biggest development project on the East Coast. In Prince George's County, it will mean we have to prepare people for 4,000 new jobs who need them. If we don't get it, we don't have that momentum," Peterson said.
When it comes to the battle with Penn, Peterson argues that National Harbor is "shovel ready" and that the infrastructure is already in place to support a 400-room hotel, a spa, high-end retail, along with restaurants and several more amenities. The area around Rosecroft is not conducive for a casino, Peterson said.
Those who oppose the casino say they are convinced that the promise to fund education will not be fulfilled. But, Peterson believes the county needs the $68 million in revenues, wherever it goes.
Peterson donated $500,000 to Maryland First NOW, a pro-gaming ballot committee headed by Wayne Curry, former Prince George's county executive.
"I've lived the dream in Prince George's County and Maryland all my life. And I've seen us flourish against all odds, time and time again. This fall, I hear more and more support for the economic development, jobs and school revenue opportunities that come with passage of Question 7," Curry said. "This truly represents an historic opportunity for Prince George's County to become a unique attraction for the tens of millions of people who visit our nation's capital each year."
Education remains a priority for Peterson.
"Education is very important to me," said Peterson, "and Prince George's schools [are] probably its biggest problem. When you get a casino, you get gaming and $68 million of other revenues – sales tax, property tax and income tax equals extra money."
"I can't tell you where they're going to spend that, but I think Baker's priorities are education, transportation and security. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley keeps saying it's the law [to fund education] on television; then those that say the money won't go to education are telling a flat lie."