The city of Alexandria is preparing for what it hopes is a big influx of new visitors once the MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino opens across the Potomac River in Prince George’s County in late 2016.
City tourism officials are putting together a task force to specifically look at what should be done in preparation for the casino’s opening, much like it did prior to the opening of National Harbor itself back in 2007.
Preliminary estimates show that about 25,000 people per day will visit the new casino, according to Tom Kaiden, chief operating officer of Visit Alexandria.
“What we don’t know is what percentage of them will come across the river, but even if a tiny fraction of them do, the potential impact on this community is obviously an important asset,” Kaiden said.
It’s hard to nail down exactly how many visitors go to Alexandria from National Harbor now. The National Harbor water taxi from Potomac River Co. ferried 135,000 passengers across the river in 2014, but it’s impossible to track how many people came by car or hotel shuttle bus.
Visit Alexandria expects the task force to comprise 12 to 15 people representing city government, local businesses, cultural destinations and residents. The group will convene its first meeting before Thanksgiving to begin work as quickly as possible.
The group will be charged with establishing relationships with MGM officials, and some of that work has already begun — MGM National Harbor execs met with both Visit Alexandria and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership in recent weeks. The group is also expected to identify potential areas for collaboration and also potential risks. Any strengths and weaknesses within Alexandria in terms of infrastructure that could have an impact on tourism will also be assessed.
The National Harbor task force in 2007 resulted in a number of changes around the city, including the addition of the now wildly popular King Street trolley, the beautification of King Street, and enhancements around the waterfront to help guide water taxi riders into the city.
Among the topics expected to be on the docket for the new panel are adding more transportation options between the two destinations on either side of the Potomac, including a Metrobus over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge; more events that will draw a wider range of visitors to Alexandria; and more aesthetic improvements to Old Town.
The task force will also examine potential competitiveness issues. With MGM expected to have its own cadre of restaurants from big-name chefs, not to mention high-end shopping, National Harbor will soon have more to offer. That could mean that visitors to the area wouldn’t necessarily have to head across the river.
Alexandria officials, however, are optimistic that the city will continue to showcase something different than the glitzy offerings at National Harbor.
“It’s very distinctive what we have here in Alexandria,” said Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria. “We’re very unique, with our own historical backdrop, our chef-driven restaurants, our shopping scene. The authentic experience we offer here is so much different than what is being offered there.”
Tourism boosters in Alexandria are approaching the forthcoming MGM opening with much less trepidation than the last time they waited for a new neighbor to open for business across the river. At the time, there was a worry that the city’s visitor numbers would suffer.
Those fears didn’t come to fruition. The city’s visitor numbers have steadily increased for the past four years, culminating in more than 3.5 million visitors in 2014.
“Going into the opening of National Harbor, there was some apprehension that a resort across the river would … result in potential loss of business here, but our experience was in fact the opposite, and it’s actually been quite complementary,” said Kaiden. “Our hope is that the casino is again another complementary experience.”
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