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MGM Resorts’ Jim Murren Talks National Harbor, Casinos, and Crabcakes

The CEO on Wednesday revealed the resort and gaming giant’s design proposal.

Rendering of proposed MGM National Harbor resort via MGM.

Next month the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission will hold its next round of hearings to decide who gets the prized license for a casino in Prince George’s County. A year ago Maryland voters paved the way by approving an expansion of state gaming laws, and in the upcoming hearings, to be held at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, the contenders for the sole county license—who collectively spent tens of millions fighting over the Question 7 referendum—include Penn National Gambling, Greenwood Racing, and MGM Resorts International. Penn wants to build a Hollywood Casino at Rosecroft Raceway; Greenwood proposes a casino on a large tract of land on Indian Head Highway.

On Wednesday morning, MGM revealed its planned design for a 22-acre site near National Harbor that would include a luxury hotel, spa, restaurants, shopping, and, obviously, gambling casinos. MGM projects the development will create 2,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs once the resort opens.

MGM National Harbor president Lorenzo Creighton and MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren hosted the design roll-out. After they briefed the media we caught up with Murren by phone to discuss the proposed resort.

It’s been almost a year since Maryland voters legalized full-fledged casino gambling, paving the way for a casino at National Harbor. What’s the next gate for you?

The next major milestone is the week of October 21. The three applicants will have private and then public hearings to fully describe their projects. MGM is on October 25. The state has indicated they will make a decision by the end of the year.

How do you feel it’s going?

I feel proud of our effort. I feel excited about the project and the amount of work we’ve put into understanding what the folks of Prince George’s County would like to see. It’s some of the best work we’ve ever done.

In your time with MGM Resorts, building other casinos in other states, have you been through a comparable process?

Every situation is slightly different. I have never been in as contentious a referendum campaign as last year. That was a first for me. But we have in the past been in the bidding process. Detroit is a good example. There were 20 applicants for three licenses in all of the city of Detroit. We were one of the winners.

I like the fact that the state has options. It’s productive that the three projects are so vastly different as to make clear distinctions.

The video rendering you released today is impressive. What did it cost to make?

We spent several million dollars over the past year on architectural design work, including that video, but I don’t know what the video specifically cost.

It’s such a huge investment. Do you feel confident you will get the nod from the gaming agency?

We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars already. What we’re doing now is very productive. We’re going to do our best on the 25th and do our best to win. I told the state I would work my best and hardest to create a product that would generate the most revenue for the state and high-paying jobs.

A project of this scale takes about three years, which is why we’re so heavily into design now. The intent of that is not to be presumptuous but to be prepared. If we lose, then it’s a business decision I made, and I’m willing to take that risk.

What were the design considerations?

We wanted to create a design that was very sensitive to Maryland’s rich history and specifically Prince George’s County. We wanted to recognize that it would be a gateway to Maryland coming over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. We wanted to make sure we had something that was iconic, sophisticated, contemporary, forward-thinking, and sustainable. We wanted to create a design that was inclusive of all people, whether they want to go to a great restaurant or a day at the spa, for a business meeting or to enjoy outdoor public spaces. The site lends itself perfectly to that because of its proximity on the Beltway, literally.

In the video rendering it appears to be at a distance from National Harbor complex itself. Is that just the rendering, or will it be that far from National Harbor?

That’s what it will be like. It is a 22-acre site. It’s part of the broader campus of National Harbor, but it’s certainly not adjacent to it. You will drive off to the left before you get to any element of National Harbor as it exists today. That was important to us. We didn’t want to add to the traffic of National Harbor. The views of the Mall and monuments are spectacular from this elevated site. We want to create a trolley system that will easily allow folks to experience National Harbor.

How deeply were you personally involved in the design process?

Very, very deeply involved. I’m very committed to this personally. I got married in this state in 1990. My wife is from Baltimore; she went to Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins. My son is at Johns Hopkins, and I’ve been on a search for the best crabcake.

Did you find it?

Yes. Koco’s in Baltimore and Jerry’s in Bowie, Maryland.

If you get the license, do you aspire to transport the Las Vegas experience to National Harbor?

It will be unique and different from Las Vegas. We feel it would be a mistake to transport Las Vegas to any other place. But many of the elements that people love about our Las Vegas resort will be available.

Will your proposed National Harbor casino be Atlantic City’s worst nightmare?

I think that Atlantic City long ago ceded its leadership position in the Mid-Atlantic area.

Is it still an $800 million project or have the numbers changed?

That will be revealed on the 25th, but I can confidently say it will be more than $800 million.

What does a gambler want and expect from a 21st-century casino?

There’s a major distinction between convenience gambling and resort visitation. [Convenience gambling] is about service, comfort levels, and proximity. The international resort is a very different business model—different design, different objectives. We try to attract an international and national customer. They travel around the world. They are very refined. They are very demanding and expect the best of the best.

You have overseen a generally long period of growth for MGM Resorts. What was the impact of the recession, and is it an issue with the National Harbor project?

I’ve been at the company for 15 years. We experienced well over a decade of unprecedented growth; then we had the most gut-wrenching and painful recession in my professional life. In the markets in which we operate, and certainly in Las Vegas, we are well on our way on the road to recovery. We are a better company. I saw a tremendous amount of courage in our employees who survived the recession, who were resilient.

We owe it to the people we want to hire [that we] learned a lot of lessons from the recession. Maryland is a leading example of better economic activity. We feel this is a great opportunity for us.


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