City establishes task force ahead of MGM National Harbor opening

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City establishes task force ahead of MGM National Harbor opening
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By Chris Teale (Image/MGM)

Across the Potomac River in Maryland, National Harbor is set to grow even more with the opening of the MGM National Harbor casino, and Alexandria officials are looking to take advantage of what they say is a great opportunity for the city.

Scheduled to open in the second half of 2016, the $1.3 billion resort is set to also include a luxury hotel, restaurants, retail, a spa and a 3,000-seat entertainment venue, adding to the burgeoning National Harbor landscape.

With all this development to come, Visit Alexandria, the city’s tourism organization, is convening a task force to discuss the benefits and challenges of the new MGM facility as it relates to Alexandria. The group is in its early stages, but officials anticipate membership will include representatives from the business community, residents, economic development partners and city officials.

“We want to be proactive about the MGM and its potential benefits for Alexandria,” said Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria. “We’re using this moment to truly take stock of where we are as a destination, and look anew at our strengths and our weaknesses and use this moment as a catalyst for any needed improvements in our infrastructure, in the experience that we offer.”

One of the major benefits officials see is the expected influx of visitors to National Harbor, many of whom might be enticed to cross the river into Alexandria.

“The experiences are really complementary, and I think that’s what we learned from National Harbor,” said Tom Kaiden, chief operating officer of Visit Alexandria. “The experience on that side of the river is very different from the one here, and so collectively the waterfront experience on both sides of the Potomac creates essentially a larger presence than either of us has individually.”

Officials with MGM said they will look to help with promoting Alexandria, and feel that a relationship across the river will be helpful for both sides.

“We see the possibilities for a mutually beneficial relationship with the city of Alexandria,” said Bill Boasberg, general manager of MGM National Harbor. “When MGM National Harbor opens next year, we will encourage our many visitors to explore the surrounding area. To facilitate this, we will have a concierge available and other services to assist guests in discovering what to do at and beyond our resort such as visiting Old Town Alexandria and other attractions in the region.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the new MGM development and any future connectivity with Alexandria is that of transportation. Currently, the Potomac Riverboat Co. runs a water taxi to National Harbor from its waterfront marina, and a bus route over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge could help bridge the gap.

“I think from the beginning of National Harbor, we’ve always had a discussion around how we bring them into the transit connectivity of the region,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “I think that still remains to be seen in the future, and it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved any time soon, but we do have the opportunity potentially to bring transit over the bridge at some point.

“Initially, it’s going to be how you build the bus connectivity there? And hopefully, they’re going to want to be a part of that conversation, because in the end that’s going to help everyone.”

Officials noted forming a task force to discuss development across the Potomac is something that has been done before. National Harbor opened in 2008 after extensive redevelopment, and in the lead-up, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce convened a similar group. It led to innovations like the King Street Trolley, water taxis and information kiosks along the waterfront.

“You had the hotel there that was bringing in folks for conventions and there would be an attraction to get off the island and explore,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “Old Town is known and people like coming here, and we thought it was important to get some plans in place to help manage what we anticipated could be an influx of folks.”

Washington and Kaiden agreed that relations are good between the city and the casino. Kaiden mentioned that several casino officials have moved to Alexandria, and both Washington and Boasberg emphasized that their presence at several events already show they are serious about collaborating.

“I think initially there’s a very good, positive relationship right now,” Washington said. “The fact that they came to our annual meeting to hear what we’re doing, what our marketing plans are, is a good thing. The fact that they came to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership board meeting and made a presentation on their project, it means they’re coming to our community, they want people to know about the project, they’re looking to collaborate and they’re doing that proactively.”

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