Fairfax real estate developer Milt Peterson dies
Chairman, founder of Peterson Cos. led development of National Harbor
Real estate developer Milton V. Peterson, founder and chairman of the Fairfax-based Peterson Cos., died early Wednesday at his Fairfax County home at the age of 85.
Peterson was known for developing major real estate projects across the Washington, D.C., metro area, including National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “Milt would not accept ‘no’ for an answer if he believed in something. This often enabled the company to take on projects that other developers simply could not, and under Milt’s leadership, Peterson Cos. developed some of the most successful and award-winning mixed-use retail, residential and office developments in Northern Virginia,” a statement from the company read.
A native of Worchester, Massachusetts, Peterson moved to Fairfax more than 60 years ago, where he initially worked for the Yeonas Co., an Arlington-based regional homebuilder. In 1965, Peterson started his own development business and in the 1970s partnered with Tysons real estate developer Til Hazel to form the Hazel/Peterson Cos. The two developed several planned communities, including Burke Centre, Franklin Farm and Centre Ridge.
During the 1990s, Peterson Cos. partnered with Montgomery County, Maryland, and Potomac, Maryland-based real estate firm Foulger-Pratt to revitalize the Downtown Silver Spring commercial district. Peterson also led the development of the Rio Washingtonian Center lakefront shopping mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Peterson’s largest and most ambitious endeavor was National Harbor, which began development in the early 2000s. Drawing more than 28 million annual visitors in pre-COVID times, National Harbor is home to the MGM National Harbor casino resort, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, The Capital Wheel, as well as retail, office and residential developments.
“Milt always said properties are like people – they have personalities – and he knew this waterfront property with over a mile of frontage on the Potomac River just minutes from Washington, D.C., was destined for greatness,” said a statement from the company that recalled that Peterson was so hands-on with the project that he sometimes operated a bulldozer. Peterson modeled National Harbor’s American Way after La Rambla in Barcelona and the Spanish Steps in Rome. He decided to add the Capital Wheel after seeing a similar Ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. He was also instrumental in the successful 2012 casino referendum that brought MGM to Maryland.
A former chair of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, Peterson also served 16 years on the Governor’s Economic Advisory Board under four Virginia governors. He also chaired the board of trustees and was a longtime board member for his alma mater, Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in Vermont.
Peterson was named the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce’s man of the year in 1995 and received a lifetime achievement award in 2006 from the Urban Land Institute for outstanding contribution to the real estate industry.
Noted philanthropists, Peterson and his wife of 64 years, Carolyn, established the Peterson Family Foundation in 1997, donating more than $100 million to charitable causes including Northern Virginia Family Service and Youth for Tomorrow in Prince William County. The couple donated $10 million to Inova Health System and Peterson was instrumental in Inova’s purchase of the former Exxon Mobil corporate campus in Fairfax, which is now the site of the Inova Schar Cancer Institute. In 2008, the Petersons received the Mason Medal, George Mason University’s highest honorary award, for their community service and support of GMU.
Peterson’s survivors include his wife of 64 years, Carolyn, and their children: Lauren, Rick, Jon and Steven. Jon Peterson succeeded his father as Peterson Cos. CEO in 2018 and Rick Peterson took over their father’s non-real estate holdings.