Officials Call National Harbor a Success, But Some Ask Where the Life Is


NATIONAL HARBOR – What struck Boston resident Karen Manikowski on her first trip to National Harbor recently was the mint condition the complex was in. Everything from the buildings to the sidewalks were clean and kempt. While this may be due to the diligent efforts of the staff, it may also have something to do with the lack of foot traffic.

"It was a little bit like ‘(The) Truman Show,’" said the 29-year-old Manikowski, "because it's very pristine, it's very nice, but there's really no sense of realness. It's just kind of like you’re living in a prefabbed world."

Like many of the visitors to National Harbor on a weekday, Manikowski was there for a conference at one of the six hotels on location. While the weekends bring families from the surrounding area to the 300-acre National Harbor, weekday traffic is largely dominated by how many conferences are being held.

"There's no one here and there's really nice shops but there is no one in the shops," said Manikowski on an unseasonably warm December afternoon.

National Harbor opened in 2008, and contains boutique-style shops, restaurants to meet anyone's appetite and multiple hotels: the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, the largest hotel on the East Coast, along with Aloft, a Hampton Inn and Suites, a Residence Inn By Marriott, a Westin and a Wyndham. Between the six hotels, there are over 2,800 rooms for guests to stay in.

A casino, built by MGM Resorts International, is also likely to come to the complex after Maryland voters approved Question 7 in November. It is expected to cost $800 million and would drive more traffic to National Harbor restaurants and stores.

"National Harbor has been a real game-changer for Maryland and Prince George's County in terms of destinations and attractions for people to visit," said Camila Clark, public relations and promotions manager for the Maryland Office of Tourism.

Since 2008, Prince George's County has averaged an 8 percent tax-revenue growth each year, said Clark, which can be directly attributed to more shops and restaurants opening up in National Harbor. According to The Washington Post, the complex has cost upwards of $4 billion to build.

Located just down the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Clark said that as opposed to competing with the nation's capital, National Harbor "gives visitors to D.C. an option outside of the city."

Gwen McCall is the president and CEO of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit that receives funding from the county.

National Harbor has been extremely successful, McCall said, and has stopped residents in Prince George's County from having to leave the county when looking for a place to shop and eat.

"A lot of the things that we hear from people, from the residents of Prince George's County, is that they don't have the type of amenities that they have here," said McCall. "Well those things are offered now at National Harbor."

Prince George's County is the most affluent, majority-black county in the nation, yet prior to National Harbor many shoppers would make trips across the river to Virginia or travel into Montgomery County to shop. With restaurants like McCormick and Schmick's, Ketchup and Cadillac Ranch, and shopping destinations like Build-A-Bear Workshop, Harley-Davidson and Life is Good, National Harbor now gives county residents an upscale shopping destination to spend their money locally. The addition of Tanger Outlets, expected to open in 2013, will only bring more revenue into the county.

One complaint that has arisen about National Harbor is the difficulty in getting there for those without a car. While McCall acknowledged having a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority subway station at the complex would be advantageous, she said the visibility from the Capital Beltway and travelers heading up and down the I-95 corridor makes up for this lost traffic.

"I think everybody would love it if the Metro came right here," said Karen Simonet, general manager for Peeps and Co.'s National Harbor location. For those looking to take mass transportation to National Harbor now, there are both buses and water taxi companies that service the area from nearby Metro stops.

The foot traffic also varies by season and time of week, said Simonet, as is often the case with an outdoor shopping area without large offices nearby. Simonet said as National Harbor grows, so should her shop's business.

"During the week we have a lot of people that are attending conventions in the area," said Simonet, "and on the weekends we have a lot more of the families and more of our local crowd."

Albert Black is so convinced National Harbor is sustainable that he is transferring in from New Jersey, saying that at 43-years-old and after being in hospitality for 27 years he doesn't want to move around any longer. Black will work at Bond 45's National Harbor location. The restaurant is part of Fireman Hospitality Group, which owns two restaurants in National Harbor and is looking to open a third on the property.

Having worked throughout the country, Black said the complex most reminds him of Coconut Grove in Miami, in that it is a pedestrian town and a "closed community."

"I've never seen so many police cars and officers in an area than I've seen here," said Black. "That just shows me that they are hell-bent on making sure all the suits, and all the convention goers and all the families that are here for the ice sculpture feel safe and feel safe returning."

While there is no denying that National Harbor is beautiful and clean, Manikowski said a sense of liveliness has not yet followed.

“It kind of seems like they have this idea to create this nice neighborhood," she said. "But they kind of forgot about the people."

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