Unions, builders spar over National Harbor casino -- Gazette.Net


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As state lawmakers waver over adding another casino in Maryland, construction unions and builders throughout the region have thrown their lot in with the proposed Las Vegas-style casino at National Harbor.

But others in the business community have voiced concern about the fairness of the slots license bidding process and the lack of goals for minority-owned business participation, should a casino be authorized at the Oxon Hill complex.

The casino — slated to cost $800 million and create up to 8,400 jobs, including 2,000 construction jobs — is “the largest union proposed project in the country,” said Mark Coles, business and legislative representative for the Washington, D.C., Building and Construction Trades Council. The council comprises 15 trade unions with 25,000 members.

For the past few months, the council has been airing radio and television ads in favor of the National Harbor casino.

The council supports the job and contract potential, as do many others in the industry, Coles said. Unite Here, a hospitality union, plus Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also have joined the cause.

But the massive show of support from unions has led some to believe they are pushing for a project labor agreement with the Peterson Cos. of Fairfax, Va., owner of National Harbor, said Debra A. Schoonmaker, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington in Calverton. The group represents 500 companies in the Washington metropolitan region.

She worries that such an agreement might cut non-union workers, who constitute 90 percent of Maryland’s construction workers, out of the picture.

“A project of this size and visibility would be pulling in union workers from out of state. That limits opportunities for our workers,” Schoonmaker said. “It also precludes minority and small businesses from participating. A non-union or open shop can’t compete.”

She questioned why the labor unions would come out “so heavily” in favor of the casino if they were not expecting a return for their support.

The Peterson Cos. say the support is just a reflection of how much the unions appreciate the casino’s potential to create jobs.

“A resort casino at National Harbor will create thousands of good paying jobs, both during construction and operation, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in new state revenue each year,” the company said in a statement. “We believe that is why so many labor organizations have supported this proposal.”

Praising that support, the company added: “If a resort casino at National Harbor wins approval by the Maryland legislature this summer and the Maryland voters this fall, we look forward to continuing to work with these allies and helping to put thousands of their members to work.”

While the trade unions would push for the project labor agreement, it would affect only construction, Coles said. He called the issue a great deal of speculation, until a project is actually authorized.

He also explained that were Peterson and MGM Resorts International, the casino’s proposed developer, to sign a project labor agreement, non-union workers would still be able to bid, provided they followed the same standards as the unions.

Minority contracting a concern

Other organizations argue that the information about minority participation on the project is too vague and lacks specific goals, said Lisa Ellis, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Business Alliance in Camp Springs. The alliance has 6,000 members.

“We’ve experienced this before with Peterson,” she said, referring to the problems Prince George’s legislators had with the lack of minority-owned business participation at National Harbor. “We have no hope this will be fair and equitable for Prince George’s.”

Ellis said her group, which has supported a slots license at Rosecroft Raceway in nearby Fort Washington, supports an “open and fair” bidding process.

People are concerned with sole sourcing at National Harbor, she said.

Officials with MGM Resorts International, the proposed developer of the casino, on Tuesday defended the Century City, Calif., company’s history with minority-owned businesses.

In an online conference, company officials pointed out that it has contracted $1.2 billion with minority- and women-owned and disadvantaged suppliers since 2001, when it adopted a formal policy on the issue. This was 10 percent of the company’s total biddable spending. MGM also has contracted $1.6 billion with minority-owned businesses for construction since 2001.

All told, MGM has worked with more than 1,000 minority businesses and requires minority bids in all commodity and procurement purchases of more than $1,000, according to MGM information.

MGM also mentioned the $172 million in minority contracts for its $803 million MGM Grand Detroit and $700 million for its $8.5 billion City Center in Las Vegas.

Ellis’ group has aired ads opposing the casino and specifically calling out MGM for reported ties with organized crime. The group references published reports that New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement raised concerns about MGM Mirage’s business partner in China, Pansy Ho. Ho’s father, Stanley, had ties with Asian organized crime, according to a 2009 report from the New Jersey agency.

The division advised MGM to sell its interests in China or leave Atlantic City. MGM left.

“We don’t want that element, or even the illusion of that element, in Prince George’s,” Ellis said. “We don’t have the capital to compete with the union ads, so we’re fighting to be heard.”

Coles called the organized crime implications “unfounded” and said they were not the trade unions’ issue.

Ellis urged that the matter be settled in Prince George’s before going to the rest of the state in a referendum. Any expanded gambling in Maryland must be approved by voters.

The county’s responsibility

Prince George’s County’s government must be responsible for ensuring local minority-owned businesses receive their fair share of contracting at a new casino, said Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Dist. 23) a member of the state’s commission to study gambling expansion.

Peters said county officials must apply the lessons they learned from National Harbor and craft rules accordingly. He added that the county has a 30 percent minority participation requirement for projects that receive county funding.

“There’s enough room for union and local minority business. We’ve just got to get past this first step of putting it on the ballot,” he said. “I’m supportive of putting it on the ballot and letting the people decide.”

The commission reported that a sixth slots location would generate $232 million in economic impact for the state and $69 million for Prince George’s.