Voters may get second chance for casino vote

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/25/2023, 6 p.m.
Will Richmond voters support a casino the second time around?
Rendering of Urban One Casino

Will Richmond voters support a casino the second time around?

That's the big question as City Hall begins a push to get the idea of a gambling mecca in South Side on the November ballot two years after the initial proposal suffered a narrow but stinging rejection.

Mayor Levar M. Stoney and his administration began the process Monday by introducing papers that would authorize the ONE Casino + Resort to develop a $562 million gambling center that also would feature a 12-story hotel, a 55-acre public park and an entertainment venue on 100 acres of property now owned by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris at the Bells Road interchange on Interstate 95.

Mayor Stoney

Mayor Stoney

The casino is projected to generate 1,300 jobs and about $30 million a year in new revenue for the city, and has the full support of City Council. On Monday, June 5 the council will be briefed on the papers in committee and likely rubber-stamp them a week later at the regular meeting on Monday, June 12.

Quick passage would give the staff and board of the Virginia Lottery time to review the proposal and authorize the vote and for Richmond Circuit Court’s chief judge, William R. Marchant, to issue the order to the city registrar to put the casino issue on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The only apparent way the proposed vote could be halted is if the General Assembly reaches a budget deal that includes language barring Richmond from holding a second vote this year, as happened in 2022. A key House budget negotiator, Virginia Beach Republican Delegate Barry Knight, has already indicated he supports adding the language.

A review of the papers Mayor Stoney introduced shows this casino deal is the same one that was defeated in 2021, with no update in cost to reflect the surge in construction costs or the hikes in the interest rate.

The city is taking the risk that casino supporters will turn out to approve the development this time when voter turnout in November is projected to be low, given that only General Assembly candidates are on the ballot.

According to the proposal, the city would not have to contribute any taxpayer money to the development.

The total cost of the casino project, including a $25.5 million payment from Urban One to the city if the vote is positive, will be undertaken borne by the revamped team that is to undertake the casino.

As before, the lead partner is Maryland-based Urban One, a major Black-owned media company known for its stable of radio stations. This time, Urban One’s partner is Churchill Downs, a racetrack and casino company best known for the Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs bought Urban One’s former partner, Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, last year, which was to operate the casino.

Details of the financial arrangements between Urban One and Churchill Downs have not been disclosed.

“This is about more than a casino,” Mayor Stoney stated Monday after submitting the papers to council. “This is about the 1,300 good-paying jobs and the $30 million in additional revenue that would enable us to provide an abundance of new opportunities for our residents.”

Along with the work opportunities, he noted the community benefits would include an audio and visual production studio that would provide training for young people and aspiring producers as well as content for Urban One’s TV and radio outlets.

He also cited the potential of the project to fuel business growth, noting the opportunities for local restaurants to offer food and beverages and for other local businesses to provide goods and services to the casino-resort.

“That’s why I am excited about another shot at this game-changing development,” Mayor Stoney said.

Eighth District Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, who has led the push for the casino, said she is pleased that the ordinances have been introduced and hopeful that “our residents will come together to do what is best for all, and that is to allow the casino project to move forward.”

“The proposed casino in Richmond offers an opportunity to promote economic growth and inclusivity for all residents,” said Council President Michael J. Jones, 9th District.

Alfred C. Liggins III, CEO of Urban One, is optimistic that a firm majority of Richmond voters will support the devel- opment.

“We continue to be very excited to work with the City of Richmond to bring this opportunity that will provide jobs and tax revenue that can support city priorities, especially education,” Mr. Liggins said.

Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., said that if voters approve, his company will do in Richmond what it has done elsewhere. “We pride ourselves,” he said, “in taking part in projects and partnerships that provide real benefits to the communities in which we operate.”