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Group wants MGM held accountable in casino construction, hiring

An alliance of Prince George’s County ministers and businesses say a bill meant to ensure local hiring and business participation will actually make it more difficult to hold MGM Resorts International accountable as it builds a nearly $1 billion casino at National Harbor.

The Prince George’s County Council could vote as early as Tuesday on a bill opponents say does nothing to ensure the casino operator will meet goals for minority and local business involvement as well as setting aside money for other potential impacts to the community.

“The bill, in its current form, has no teeth in terms of benefiting Prince George’s County residents,” said Lisa Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Business and Clergy Partnership.

“What’s the point?” Ellis asked. “How do we hold MGM accountable?”

The Business and Clergy Partnership claims about 300 members around the Washington area.

Joe Gaskins, a co-chair of the organization, is the former chairman of the Prince George’s County Contractors Association and has been a longtime opponent of the proposed MGM project.

The bill, in its current form, requires the council to approve a community benefit agreement between the county and MGM before occupancy permits are issued. An earlier version of the legislation called for those agreements to be approved before building permits are issued.

In their presentations, MGM officials have said the project could bring as many as 2,000 construction jobs and 4,000 resort-related jobs to National Harbor.

Ellis said the organization also wants stronger language guaranteeing minority and local hiring goals as well as money for road improvements, vocational training to help local residents seek jobs at the casino and additional funding for gambling addiction programs. Additionally, the group wants an independent compliance officer established to ensure MGM meets the goals in a benefit agreement.

The county council has been holding a series of hearings regarding community benefits since February.

“The Office of the County Executive is currently negotiating a community benefit agreement with MGM that will cover hiring and opportunities for local contractors,” Scott L. Peterson, a spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, said in an emailed statement. “This is an important responsibility, and we are putting the best interests of our residents first and foremost during these negotiations. However, since we are currently in negotiations, we are not commenting on the details of those discussions.”

Gordon Absher, vice president of public affairs for MGM Resorts International, said in an emailed statement that the company “has a peerless record on minority hiring, as well as MBE participation in our construction and operations.”

“We committed to continue that practice here in Prince George’s County when we submitted to the State of Maryland last year a binding document that certified we would achieve significant goals in hiring, construction and procurement,” Absher wrote. “We are confident once our discussions with the county executive’s office are finalized, we will produce an agreement many will acknowledge as one of the most generous ever negotiated by the county, delivering significant financial contributions, aggressive commitments to MBE and local hiring and other tangible benefits.”

County Council Chairman Jamel R. “Mel” Patterson did not respond to a request for an interview.

The company and Baker have been negotiating a community benefit agreement for months. The agreement would be similar to those negotiated with casinos in Baltimore city and Anne Arundel County.

The agreement is expected to be completed before the end of June, when MGM Resorts International hopes to break ground on the project.

In March, a lawyer representing MGM Resorts International in Maryland sent a letter opposing the original council legislation, citing “potentially irreconcilable conflicts between state and county law.”

“Those inconsistencies and contradictions, if left unchanged, will cause conflicting interpretations going forward in a number of important regards,” wrote Philip M. Andrews, an attorney at Kramon & Graham P.A., of Baltimore.

“The bill is not a necessary predicate for an enforceable [community benefit agreement],” Andrews concluded in his letter. “All of these conflicts and accompanying issues can be avoided by the bill’s withdrawal.”

MGM Resorts International was awarded the state’s sixth and final casino license in December. The company plans to build a $925 million gaming facility that includes a 300-room hotel, 3,600 slot machines and 140 table games.

By law, the casino cannot open earlier than July 2016, or 30 months after the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino opens.