2021's Top 10 Retail Experiences: No. 5 National Harbor

Chain Store Age picks physical retail's most engaging centers
Al Urbanski
Real Estate Editor & Manager
Al Urbanski

“You say National Harbor and I say, ‘Milt Peterson,’ said Paul Weinschenk. “He loved land. He thought different pieces of land had different personalities, and he thought of National Harbor like Marilyn Monroe.”

Milt Peterson was the founder of Peterson Companies, which owns and operates National Harbor. Weinschenk, the company’s president of retail, said that Peterson knew that there was something special about this mile and a half of land on the Potomac River, so he bought it—and then spent a couple of decades figuring out what to do with it.

What he did was something special. National Harbor is home to 160 stores, 40 restaurants, 2,500 residents, and the Capital Wheel—a 180-ft.-high observation wheel offering views of the nation’s capital, Maryland, and Virginia. Its Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is the East Coast’s largest non-gaming hotel and convention center. Two years ago, Topgolf arrived. Because its population is largely transient, full of conventioneers and tourists, its retail mix ranges from essential to luxurious to outlet. Yes, Tanger has a center in National Harbor.

“It’s a complicated customer mix,” said Weinschenk. “You’ve got tourists from all over the world who’ll visit the outlets, conventioneers out for expense account dinners, local residents who need groceries and prescriptions filled. So you have to have everything.”

Everything, to Milt Peterson, included art. He thought art played an important role in real estate developments, and National Harbor has commissioned more than 30 pieces of outdoor artwork that visitors can tour using apps on their cell phones. Estimated to be worth more than $10 million, the collection’s most popular piece is “The Awakening,” J. Seward Johnson’s 72-ft.-wide sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. 

One unusual amenity that National Harbor presents to its visitors, Weinschenk noted, is access to the Potomac River. He said that riverside gathering spots in D.C. are rare, but the Harbor’s Waterfront District gets guests toes wet with pedal boats, kayaks, paddleboards, and CraigCats.

Stay tuned for daily profiles of the next five centers. Until then, catch up on what you missed:

No. 1 Easton Town Center
No. 2 American Dream
No. 3 Galleria Dallas
No. 4 Tuscan Village

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