Far from the Las Vegas Strip, MGM Resorts International opens its $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino and resort just outside the nation’s capital this week, advertising a gambling floor “bigger than the White House” and an art collection that includes a large welded collage by Bob Dylan.
But don’t expect Vegas glitz, neon flamingos or ancient Roman replicas here. Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, describes the design as “intentionally monumental,” meaning that the area’s first casino-resort was designed to complement Washington’s iconic landmarks.
The location in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just across the Potomac River from Virginia and next to Washington is also central to its appeal. A plaza with a reflecting pool offers sweeping views of the water and the capital city’s monuments across the way.
The casino opens Thursday night at 11 p.m.
With three major airports nearby, MGM hopes to attract international travelers visiting Washington as well as U.S. tourists coming to see their nation’s capital, particularly those from the Southeast. This will be Maryland’s sixth and biggest casino, but Murren said there are only a handful of casino-resorts on the East Coast that have as much to offer as this one. “This was designed and is programmed to draw people into the state and not simply to be a casino,” Murren said.
MGM National Harbor’s casino floor is about 125,000 square feet, with table games and more than 3,300 slot machines. An intimate 3,000-seat arena already has lined up well-known acts like Bruno Mars, Sting, Cher and Boys II Men. The hotel is 23 stories with 308 rooms. There’s also a spa, salon, outdoor pool and 50,000 square feet of meeting space. High-end branded retailers include the first SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker boutique. Bars and restaurants feature local, national and international chefs, including a Voltaggio Brothers Steak House. A 12-foot chocolate fountain is the centerpiece of a European-inspired pastry shop, called Bellagio after the MGM casino in Las Vegas.
Seventy-two works of art are displayed inside and outside the casino. Bob Dylan’s “Portal,” a metal collage with an aquatic theme including a Maryland blue crab, arches over an entrance to the casino floor. It is the singer and Nobel laureate’s first work of art for a public space on permanent display.
“I viewed art from the inception of National Harbor as not an amenity, but as an integral part of the narrative and experience to the resort,” said Murren, who majored in art history in college. The collection also contains work by local artists. Docent tours are planned, and descriptions of the art can be downloaded on smartphones.
This touch of Las Vegas opens about six weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump, whose businesses have included hotels, casinos and other hospitality industry properties.
“Moving forward to have somebody that’s been experienced in this industry is, you know, a positive from a travel and tourism perspective, and I certainly look forward the next several years for our company,” Murren said.
But as Trump knows, success in the casino industry can be elusive. MGM National Harbor’s opening comes about two months after the Taj Mahal, which was built by Trump, closed in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Taj Mahal was Atlantic City’s fifth casino to close since 2014 amid rising casino competition in surrounding states.
MGM National Harbor has been in the works for years. When Maryland voters first approved casinos in 2008, only five casinos with just slot machines were allowed. Then in 2012, voters approved a sixth casino in Prince George’s County, including permission for table games. MGM and rival casino owner Penn National Gaming, Inc., spent more than $80 million on the campaign leading up to that vote, with Penn National opposing the MGM expansion.
Two other Maryland casinos operate within 45 miles from of MGM National Harbor: the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, operated by Caesars Entertainment Corps., and Maryland Live!, owned by the Cordish Cos., in Anne Arundel County. State lawmakers reduced the state’s high tax rate on those casinos in order to help make up for lost market share with the opening of MGM.
Still, Murren said MGM aims to attract new visitors from outside Maryland, not pull them away from competitors. He added that the casino employs 3,600 full-time employees.
The resort is not directly linked by Metro, the subway for Washington, Maryland and Virginia. You can get there by bus from the Metro’s King Street stop on the yellow line, the Southern Avenue stop on the green line or by water taxi from Alexandria, Virginia. There’s a 5,000-car onsite parking lot and an overflow lot, plus a taxi stand. A shuttle that runs daily 11 a.m.-4 a.m. will link the resort with the rest of National Harbor, a separate development that includes restaurants, shopping and the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. The resort also is working with ride-sharing companies.