By Chris Teale (File photo)
Representatives from the MGM Readiness Task Force presented a series of recommendations to city council at its legislative meeting Tuesday night, outlining how they feel the city can prepare for the opening of the MGM casino at National Harbor later this year.
The task force was convened by city tourism authority Visit Alexandria in fall 2015 and is made up of city officials, representatives from the business community and residents. It met in November and December to formulate a number of recommendations.
The top six presented to councilors were to improve wayfinding; provide retail training; encourage international trade shows as a partner with MGM; refresh the waterfront marina; bring more structure to cultural programming; and ensure the flowers and tree wells along King Street are in good condition.
Those six recommendations are slated to cost approximately $290,000, with $200,000 proposed to be funded from the fiscal 2017 capital budget and $90,000 from the city’s operating budget. The report prepared by the task force also includes other recommendations like hanging the city’s holiday lights on King Street differently and providing communication and information to help residents and businesses understand the project.
The $1.3 billion casino 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 that includes the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center and the Tanger Outlet retail space.
National Harbor coming online in 2008 prompted a similar task force in the Port City, and one of its recommendations that has been revived is a revamp of the marina, which officials said served as an important gateway to Alexandria.
“This [marina refresh] was critical to making sure our first impression was a good one, and was our highest aesthetic priority,” said Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria.
That refresh is proposed to cost $45,000 from the city’s operating budget, and prompted a discussion among city councilors about regulation of entertainment on the waterfront and the nearby blocks of King Street.
Currently, there are virtually no regulations governing street performers, except that anyone wishing to play amplified music must obtain a permit. Mayor Allison Silberberg said that artists showed entrepreneurial spirit by placing themselves there, but City Councilor Paul Smedberg bemoaned what he described as a “free-for-all” for space and loose change.
“It’s one thing being entrepreneurial, but there has to be some kind of regulation or standard there because it’s out of control,” he said.
Deputy City Manager Emily Baker, a member of the task force, said that regulations would be examined in the future, and that the public programming aspect referred to city-managed projects like art displays and historical re-enactments among others. Washington pointed to a replica of the Marquis de Lafayette’s ship the L’Hermione docking at the waterfront last June as an example of city-managed cultural programming that worked well in that area.
City Councilor Del Pepper spoke of her desire to see the city’s holiday lights along King Street between the Metro station and the waterfront be more or less permanent as a way to welcome visitors and encourage business. The lights were slated for removal Thursday.
“It would be nice to have them all year long, because they’re our statement that we’re open for business all year long,” she said.
Silberberg agreed, but City Manager Mark Jinks noted what could be a prohibitive cost for keeping them up year-round. Jinks said it would cost approximately $4,000 a month to light them, then maintenance costing $100,000 or more would be required to re-string them, a process that would have to happen more than once a year.
Re-stringing is required as the lights and wires can be damaged by tree branches and the wind, which can prevent the bulbs from being lit. Smedberg questioned the need for tree lights, especially as a way to drive more people to use city businesses.
“The lights in themselves aren’t going to save businesses and change business models,” he said. “While they’re nice, they lose their specialness, especially around holiday time.”
Baker noted that a budget memo is being prepared on the holiday lights as councilors continue to work on the budget for fiscal 2017. The lights were scheduled to be up from November to March this year after a budgeting decision made previously, and Jinks said the only way to free up more funds for them may be through the upcoming add/delete sessions.
Included in the report but not discussed in council chambers is a recommendation to evaluate the feasibility of a Business Improvement District focused on the waterfront, while a job fair to connect employers with prospective employees was floated to help city residents try and capitalize on the casino’s employment opportunities.
With the casino’s opening just months away and construction continuing, city officials see great opportunities in the new venture across the Potomac River, while staying aware of possible drawbacks.
“There are clear opportunities for Alexandria to benefit from this change through increased employment for our residents and increased business activity resulting from new visitor volume,” the report reads. “…At the same time, Alexandria should also recognize some potential adverse impacts associated with the opening of the resort including increased competition, wage pressure and social impacts of gambling.”