By Kofi Mframa
Virginia could have its fifth casino if a local referendum passes in November, though Richmond voters rejected it the first time.
The proposal would extend casino gambling into central Virginia. There are two casinos open in the southern and southwest parts of the state. One casino is operational in eastern Virginia, with one more slated to open next year.
The Richmond Grand Resort and Casino is a $562 million proposal by Black-owned multimedia conglomerate Urban One and new partner, Churchill Downs.
Richmond voters rejected the first proposal backed by Urban One in November 2021, but on a snug margin of under 1,500 votes. There was overwhelming support in the 8th and 9th Districts where the casino would be located. Voters in the 3rd, 6th and 7th Districts showed support for the project. There was strong disapproval in the other four districts.
Richmond is not the first city to find itself in this debate. There was initial concern from local residents before a casino opened in Danville, according to City Manager Ken Larkin. The casino helped buffer some of the city’s industry losses, and “the economic benefits won the day,” Larkin told WRAL.
Casino opposition in Richmond has reignited while project leaders have expanded their strategic approach to sway voters.
The developers hope to convince voters that the casino could benefit Southside and Richmond. They see it as more than just a casino, and promise an array of extras that includes a 55-acre greenspace, luxury spa and concert venue.
The city would receive an initial $25 million payment if the referendum passes, and city leaders have also stated that the project would not cost taxpayers. The development would create 1,300 jobs and offer a “pathway into the middle class,” according to Michael Kelly, spokesperson for the Urban One project.
“It’s going to generate $30 million of annual revenue for the city to invest in city priorities like childhood education,” Kelly said. “It’s also going to do a lot to improve Southside, an area that needs investment and wants investment.”
Not everyone is convinced the casino will solve Southside’s economic woes. Allan-Charles Chipman, a previous Richmond City Council candidate, thinks public officials and developers have exaggerated the casino’s potential benefits.
“Casinos are not proven to help decrease economic wealth gaps,” Chipman said. “If anything, they’ve been shown to worsen them.”
The City Council vote to put a referendum back on the ballot drew public ire and an ongoing lawsuit.
Richmond Lodge No. 1 of the Good Lions, Inc., a Southside-based organization that raises money through charitable gaming, filed a lawsuit claiming Council violated the state constitution by not allowing a complete public bidding process.
The court rejected the lawsuit on the grounds that Good Lions failed to properly challenge the constitutionality of the bidding process. They also failed to prove any harm to their operations if the referendum were to pass.
“It’s sort of circular logic because, first of all, we weren’t a potential bidder because it was a no-bid contract — nobody was a potential bidder,” said attorney and Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who represented the Good Lions. “We’re a business in the City of Richmond, we should have as much standing as anybody else.”
The Good Lions filed an appeal to the ruling last week, according to a Virginia Business report. It is unknown if the appeal would be heard before Election Day, but early voting is already underway.
Churchill Downs representative Adisa Muse and 8th District Councilmember Reva Trammell recently hosted a district-wide meeting to inform voters about the casino and address concerns.
People voiced apprehension, but many were in support.
One attendee questioned how developers can promise a $55,000 annual salary, when local gaming parlor salaries start at around $30,000. Gaming parlors don’t have table games or generate the same cash as a casino.
The take home salary alone would likely not be $55,000. The proposed compensation touted by developers is a package that includes wages, tips and benefits. The minimum pay for tipped and non-tipped employees would be $15 per hour, according to city documents.
Another attendee was worried the new casino would increase property taxes. Muse said the project will not raise taxes and will generate revenue for the entire city.
“Lowering real estate taxes was a conversation in 2021,” Muse said. “Right now we have the ability to provide more funding for infrastructure through the series of taxes that are being collected through this development.”
Tax revenue promises didn’t sway enough city voters in 2021, according to data by the Virginia Public Access Project. Urban One and Churchill Downs are now primarily targeting voters in the 8th and 9th Districts to drive turnout.
“We can go to some of the other areas of the city, when they find out about this, they get completely antagonistic to what we’re doing,” Muse said. “So we have to be very focused, we have to be very targeted and that means that we’re not hitting doors as massively in other parts of Richmond.”
One reason the previous proposal failed to pass was confusion on the location, according to 9th District Councilmember Michael Jones. He also noted a racial divide in Southside voting patterns.
“It didn’t pass in any predominantly white precinct and it passed in most predominantly African American precincts,” he said. “What went on there, what wasn’t communicated, that something became racially divisive?”
Jones believes some white voters took a moral stance against the casino.
“As an African-American male, I have a problem hearing white people say ‘this is not good for Black people, this is not good for poor people,’” Jones said. “That’s a very paternalistic view and perspective.”
Developers like to highlight the variety of all-ages entertainment that the casino would offer — from dining to outdoor recreation to gaming. Urban One is primarily a media broadcasting company. It held stake in the MGM National Harbor Hotel & Casino in Maryland, but cashed out earlier this year, according to multiple reports.
“Richmond Grand is going to be a real attractive place for folks to come and visit for any number of activities,” project spokesperson Kelly said.
The casino’s location near Interstate 95 will make it easy to attract visitors from outside the region, and generate revenue that can be reinvested into the city, according to Kelly.
Still, Chipman, and other vocal opponents, believe there are better ways to fund Southside.
“Like [Sen.] Tim Kaine said the first time, there are more equitable ways to develop Southside,” Chipman said. “I don’t feel good that developers go to the bargaining table, but somehow Southside has to go to the blackjack table.”
Voters can cast an early ballot in-person at their local registrar’s office beginning 45 days before Election Day. To vote by mail, download and complete the absentee application form available on the Virginia Department of Elections website. A mail-in ballot must be postmarked on or before Election Day and be received by the general registrar’s office by noon on Friday, Nov. 10.
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