National Harbor rises, sets opening date


Milt Peterson recalls the first time his grand vision for National Harbor took shape. The Fairfax developer was in Barcelona, Spain, with his wife when he happened upon a street called Las Ramblas. The thronging center of a medieval Gothic Quarter, Las Ramblas is splashed with Art Nouveau facades and its towering piazzas reverberate by night with street musicians.

“I just fell in love with it,” Peterson said on Tuesday. “I came back to the United States and I said to my team, ‘I love it, and I want one.'”

So Peterson flew 10 of his architects and exterior designers to the Catalonian capital to experience the street first-hand. “I said to them you are going to live for three days on Las Ramblas,” he recalled. “I want you to see it in the morning, in the night. I want you to understand it, because we are going to emulate this place.”

Peterson’s vacation vision is now taking shape across the Potomac River in the form of the largest convention resort on the east coast, and the fourth largest in the world. The $2 billion project now occupies 1,400 construction workers 16 hours a day, seven days a week, all racing to complete the massive tourist complex by April 25, 2008, the planned opening day.

In a dazzling pre-opening celebration which included confetti cannons and clinking champagne flutes, John Caparella, the chief operating officer for Gaylord Hotels, briefed reporters and regional officials on Tuesday. “I’m pleased to announce that the project is on time and on budget, and will be opening one year from tomorrow,” Caparella said. “We’re very excited to be associated with Milt Peterson and his vision for National Harbor.”

Peterson, a multi-millionaire who pulled up to the celebration in a dusty SUV, was grinning from ear to ear. “I can’t believe there’s a property like this in the United States,” he said proudly. “That’s not a river. That’s the historic Potomac. That’s not Hoboken. That’s the world’s capital.”

Gaylord Hotels, whose Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on the Potomac will form the centerpiece of Peterson’s European-styled miniature city, also announced it is boosting rooms under construction by 500 to 2,000, to keep pace with demand from convention groups.

“We already have 900,000 room nights booked,” Caparella reported. “Some bookings go all the way out to 2016, if you can believe that.”

Caparella said that 65 percent of advance bookings were being generated from Gaylord’s existing customers, “most of whom have never been in this market.” He added, “We have a lot of anxious meeting planners who are anxious to sample this resort.”

He described Gaylord’s $900 million investment in the resort “a win-win for everyone” because its other resorts near Nashville, Orlando and Dallas generate a massive spillover effect on local economies. Alexandria is the largest city closest to National Harbor, which is located in Prince George’s County in Oxon Hill, Md.

“Our hotels generate significant economic impact for the surrounding communities,” Caparella said, noting that its Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando boasted a million room nights booked 30 nights out from its opening — an industry record. “So, we’re in great shape to break that record,” he predicted, adding that the Orlando property supported 2,000 local jobs, 650,000 visitors and overflowed 75,000 room nights to other local hotels last year.

Bridging communities
Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, who attended the ceremony, said that National Harbor will build a bridge between Virginia and Maryland residents. “For so many years, a river has divided Alexandria, then what Gaylord has built, what Milt Peterson has built, will unite us,” he said.

“My goal is to make this one of the great streets in America,” Peterson said. “If I don’t do it, then I’ve screwed up.”