A grand opening for a grand hotel

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It didn’t start as much. The 300-acre, postage-stamp of a parcel along the banks of the Potomac was nothing more than a dustpile when the legal wrangling over its status started three decades ago.

“It wasn’t much, really,” recalled Dr. Robert Wineland of Hollin Hills, who grew up near the site of what is now a $2 billion mixed use development.

Wineland, 83, a pediatrician who founded his practice on Belle Haven Road back in 1954, was born at Alexandria Hospital in 1924 and grew up on a small farm in Oxon Hill, several miles due east of where National Harbor now stands. His father ran a handful of movie theaters in Alexandria and southern Maryland, and raised his children to tend his large vegetable garden and feed the chickens, horses and goats every day before dawn.

It was nothing but farms back then, Wineland said. There were several houses, a gasoline station and a whiskey store.

Back then, you could hop a trolley car for a nickel from Congressional Heights and head downtown to work.

Flash forward to this Friday, when Nashville-based Gaylord Hotels throws open the casino-like doors to a massive convention hotel and resort which spent decades in the planning stages — and in the courts.

The project was once known as PortAmerica, a waterfront residential and office complex that was to feature a skyscraper overlooking the river.  But environmentalists helped hold up the permits and approvals, and the FAA expressed concerns that the 52-story building would block planes from landing at National Airport, down the river. When PortAmerica filed for bankruptcy, Milton V. Peterson, a Fairfax builder who had once developed downtown Silver Spring and Tysons Corner Mall, snapped up the land in 1996 and announced a collaboration with Gaylord in 2003. 

“Over a decade ago my dad and I walked along the property and I said ‘What are we going to do now?'” recalled Steven B. Peterson, the president of Peterson Development, who lives in an area of Alexandria across from National Harbor, and can see the project rising from his windows. “Every month his vision would change.”

Steven Peterson recalled that site development discussions were held with Walt Disney Co. officials about a themed amusement park, as well as with the developers of a possible LegoLand park for kids.

But his father had a more grander vision that an amusement park.

Five years ago he was in Barcelona, Spain, with his wife when he happened upon a vibrant area 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,” Milt Peterson said. “I came back to the United States and I said to my team, ‘I love it, and I want one.'”

Steven Peterson, who graduated from St. Stephens/St. Agnes School, said his father’s vision was constantly changing. “The vision has been evolving over the last 12 years,” he said. “The market has been evolving, so this has evolved.”
 
Peterson called National Harbor a “lifestyle center on steroids,” with 6,000 guests per day filling up the 2,000 rooms of the centerpiece Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, five auxiliary hotels with 500 rooms, and eventually 2,500 luxury condo units, apartments and townhomes.

There will be eight marquis “destination” restaurants, live entertainment on a stage which pops out of the landscape, a restaurant called “Ketchup” part owned by Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher, as well as luxury retailers.

The scope of the place is breathaking.  It is the largest convention resort on the east coast, and one of the largest in the world. For the last two years the project has consumed the efforts of 1,400 construction workers 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

All have been racing to complete the massive tourist complex by April 25 — this Friday — the grand opening.

In what is expected to be a dazzling opening celebration of confetti cannons, fireworks and clinking champagne flutes, John Caparella, the chief operating officer for Gaylord Hotels, said, “I’m pleased to announce that the project is on time and on budget. We’re very excited to be associated with Milt Peterson and his vision for National Harbor.”

Gaylord will also be hosting a black-tie dinner for the grand opening of what will be its fourth hotel. Over the next year, five more hotels and condo towers are expected to open, joining high-end boutiques and restaurants.

Peterson said he’s thrilled his dream has finally taken shape. “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, had a soft opening on April 1, in order to keep pace with demand from convention groups.

About 450 condos being built for the first phase are already 90 percent sold out, and Caparella said the hotel has confirmed 1.3 million bookings at the hotel through 2018.

With an atrium and brick building loosely based on Old Town architecture, the Gaylord National finally opened three weeks ago to eager conventioneers. Several thousand Saturn dealers from the United States and Canada poured in, using the new ramps off I-495 and Interstate 295 that lead to the $2 billion development in Prince George’s County. Metrobus service to the site also debuted April 1.

The long-anticipated water taxi service provided by Old Town-based Potomac Riverboat Co. have also started, and beginning May 1, the service will run every half hour between those locations, and will be added from Georgetown to National Harbor every three hours from Tuesdays through Sundays.

In addition to the opening of the Gaylord property, two other hotels open this month at National Harbor, the Hampton Inn & Suites and the National Harbor Westin. Eventually, about seven million square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space will fill out the Peterson Cos. development.

The $865 million Gaylord hotel is the anchor tenant, which Peterson hopes will become a miniature city of high-class retail outlets and dining options, rivaling even that of Silver Spring.

One of the first restaurants to open will be a McCormick and Schmicks seafood restaurant in early June. By next spring, Peterson Cos. officials expect that about two dozen stores and restaurants will be in operation at National Harbor.

The first guests at the Gaylord National Tuesday paid $299 a night for their rooms, and exhibitors with the Army Aviation Association of America flew in by helicopter, actually landing on the site and becoming the first group to fill the hotel to capacity.

Don’t expect to call up and get a room: The hotel is fully committed until early May, said Amie Gorrell, Gaylord’s director of public relations.

Two major events have been scheduled in May to coincide with Gaylord’s Friday unveiling. The Yacht Show at National Harbor, a showcase for mega luxury yachts of a size seldom seen outside Florida, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, will dock at National Harbor between May 1-4. Produced by United States Yacht Shows, the show will feature new, brokerage and charter yachts in the 60 to 150 and up range.

Two weeks later, the inaugural Food & Wine Festival at National Harbor will offer gourmets and wine enthusiasts a chance to sample some of the most prominent wine producers as well as the talents of renowned chefs and culinary personalities.

The event, produced by Shows, Inc., will include wine tasting, gourmet food, dessert and beverage sampling (including beers and non-alcoholic drinks), wine seminars, cooking demonstrations, entertainment, special wine tasting dinners and other related events. The festival will run May 16-18.

National Harbor will become a destination
for fun, and these inaugural events are examples of the kinds of festivities that will become a regular on-site occurrence, said Dawn Banket, director of Events and Sponsorship for National Harbor.

And with the National Children’s Museum moving to the site in 2012, Gaylord and Peterson Cos. officials say they are more optimistic that National Harbor will become one of the most major destinations along the eastern seaboard.

“My father has poured his heart and soul into this property,” said Steven Peterson, president of the Peterson Cos. “Every morning my father would come in with another idea. But we as a company have never done anything on this scale, and we will not get a return on this property for 6-7 years.”

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