City prepared for MGM National Harbor impact

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City prepared for MGM National Harbor impact
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The finishing touches are being applied as the MGM National Harbor casino prepares to open December 8, and Alexandria officials are ready to take advantage.

The $1.3 billion casino and resort across the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Md. has been a topic of local conversation for years, and talks accelerated when construction began in 2014. It is set to include a luxury hotel, restaurants, retail, a spa and a 3,000-seat entertainment venue.

Last year, tourism authority Visit Alexandria convened the MGM Readiness Task Force, composed of city staff, business leaders and other stakeholders. The group then provided a report to city council in March and recommended up to 14 projects for inclusion in the fiscal 2017 budget.

Of those projects, seven were either approved for the fiscal 2017 operating or capital budgets or deemed to be served sufficiently by existing city services. The total cost is $290,000, including $90,000 in the fiscal 2017 operating bud- get and $200,000 in the capital budget.

Choosing which programs to fund came down to a number of factors, city spokeswoman Andrea Blackford said.

“The things that were chosen to be done were done because they embodied things that worked within existing work plans, they had the greatest impact with some of the funding, they worked with staff that we already had, and resources that we already had present,” she said.

Enhanced signage and wayfinding and the use of international travel symbols on signage around Old Town received $200,000 in additional funding in the fiscal 2017 capital budget. Charlotte Hall, vice president of the Potomac Riverboat Company and a member of the MGM task force, said that improved wayfinding was key for the group to help the influx of potential visitors understand their surroundings and where they can go.

Meanwhile, the city’s Small Business Development Center received $10,000 to continue an initiative to train retailers around the city that began when National Harbor first opened in 2008. SBDC executive director Bill Reagan said that under the current program, the organization has hosted workshops on hiring staff and instilling values of customer service, and on the impact of visual attractors like holiday lights on window displays.

Reagan said improving storefronts is one crucial way to entice more shoppers, especially those visiting from across the river looking for something different to do.

“Our thought is that the windows are one of the ways that you really attract people: people that go down the street on the trolley, people that are driving down the street and people that are walking up and down the street,” he said. “We need to make the strongest impression with really eye-catching windows of the quality that you see in New York City. If we can get our small retailers to step it up and really improve the designs they put in their windows, more people will be inclined to go into those stores and shop.”

Another $5,000 was appropriated to allow coordination with MGM on international trade shows, while a refresh of the city marina received $45,000. A total of $30,000 went toward improved and coordinated public performing arts programming on the waterfront.

Finally, the proposal to fund planting and maintenance of trees along King Street was folded into a wider initiative around foliage maintenance for fiscal 2017, while an existing collaboration between MGM and the city’s Workforce Development Center was deemed adequate to help local residents get jobs associated with the resort.

“The tree canopy provides shade, it helps block the direct sunlight into the fronts of our stores, which damages our
merchandise,” said Danielle Romanetti, owner of knitting store fibre space and an MGM task force member. “And it creates atmosphere and environment, which is what people are looking for now when they’re shopping.

“If they want to simply purchase something, they’re going to look online. We have to create a shopping atmosphere
here that is attracting folks from around the D.C. area to Alexandria.”

Ahead of the opening, Prince George’s County transportation officials and the Prince George’s County Police Department prepared a traffic management plan designed to cope with the anticipated 9,000 to 10,000 vehicles likely
to descend on the MGM in the 24-hour period after its official opening.

For their part, staffers in Alexandria’s department of transportation and environmental services said they do not anticipate any major traffic problems, but along with the Alexandria Police Department will keep a close eye on the situation at the city’s traffic management center.

Deputy director of transportation Carrie Sanders said the recently launched NH2 Metrobus link between the Huntington and King Street Metro stations across the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge to National Harbor has shown good early ridership.

In the first week of its nine-month pilot program, Sanders said more than 3,200 passengers took the service that runs every 30 minutes. Transportation director Yon Lambert said the NH2 along with the Potomac Riverboat Company’s continuing water taxi service will be helpful to get cars off the roads between Alexandria and National Harbor.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing choices for people to be able to get back and forth between Alexandria, MGM and National Harbor,” Lambert said.

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