- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2014

Days after a Prince George’s County lawmaker introduced a bill to exempt amusement parks from paying the county’s increased minimum wage, developers announced plans to build a 175-foot Ferris wheel on the Potomac River’s edge at National Harbor.

What remains unclear is whether the attraction, which is projected to bring $1 million in “amusement taxes” to the county annually, would qualify the site for the wage exemption.

“At this point we’ve had no discussions with the county regarding that,” said Jon Peterson, principal of Peterson Cos., which developed National Harbor. “So whether we receive that is to be determined.”

Mr. Peterson was joined by his father, National Harbor’s developer Milton Peterson, and county officials Thursday to announce construction of the Capital Wheel, which is expected to be completed by May.

A 20-minute ride on the giant observation wheel will cost $15, and Mr. Peterson projects that the attraction could draw 600,000 to 800,000 customers per year. That would equate to $10 million in revenue annually, and $1 million a year in amusement taxes paid to the county, Mr. Peterson said.

Lawmakers in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and the District adopted legislation to raise the minimum wage in their jurisdictions to $11.50 per hour. The exemption proposal was introduced in an effort to allow Six Flags to pay its roughly 2,000 seasonal employees $7.25 an hour rather than the $11.50 an hour wage — excluding payment of the higher wage to anyone who “is hired by an amusement park to work only during the amusement park’s operating season.”

But the County Council bill proposed provides no definition of an amusement park, leaving the book open on who would qualify for the wage hike exemption.

Noting the possibility for unintended consequences, lawmakers already see the need to closely define the amusement park exemption.

“We need to be cautious in how we roll this out,” said County Council member Obie Patterson, who represents the area that includes National Harbor. “We don’t want to start a trickling-down effect because once you start making exceptions you open up the gateway.”

Maryland tax code applies amusement or admission taxes to “admission to a place, including any additional separate charge for admission within an enclosure; use of a game of entertainment; the use of recreational sports facilities” as well as the “sale of merchandise, refreshments, or service at a night club or similar place where entertainment is provided.”

The county’s amusement tax is levied at 10 percent.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who lamented that his fear of heights would likely keep him from riding one of the Ferris wheel’s 42 gondolas, said he doesn’t think the site would automatically qualify for the exemption under the proposed bill.

“I think it’s going to be a question as to whether National Harbor actually engages a conversation with the council about exempting them,” said Mr. Baker, a Democrat.

But given the desire for a narrowly tailored exemption, Mr. Baker doesn’t see much outright support for the inclusion of the Ferris wheel or other amusement rides under that definition.

“I think the difference with Six Flags is they have been such a pioneer and stayed here during the hard times and employed a lot of our young people,” Mr. Baker said. “I think that the council felt that we should look at them in a special light. I don’t know that any other venue would be that way, including National Harbor.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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