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Backers promise casino would revitalize Southside, but experts and advocates are skeptical

Person holding microphone
Crixell Matthews
Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins promotes the casino proposal at a Southside meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Voters in Richmond aren’t only casting ballots to appoint their state representatives in this year’s election. Located on the back of Richmonders’ ballots will be a referendum, asking if a casino should be allowed in the capital city.

Proponents of the casino say it will revitalize the city’s poorest district, and its owners promise to create job opportunities and invest resources in underfunded communities. But anti-casino advocates argue the casino would exploit vulnerable communities, and that’s too high a cost for what they say are exaggerated claims of economic benefits.

The proposal

The casino being proposed for the City of Richmond would be owned by Urban One, a multi-media company which operates the largest local urban radio network in the country and the cable network TV One, which is the largest Black-owned television network in the U.S.

Urban One is proposing to name the Richmond development One Casino + Resort. If the referendum passes, it would be located in Southside at Commerce Road and Walmsley Boulevard, on industrially zoned land currently owned by Phillip Morris, USA.

The proposed 300,000-square-foot casino would include 2,000 slot machines, 110 table games and a 250-room resort-style hotel. The development will also include 15 bars and restaurants and an event center capable of hosting 3,000 people. According to their proposal, they plan to host about 200 entertainment events in those spaces annually. There will also be TV and radio production studios and a 55-acre public park.

Over the first five years after its construction, Urban One estimates the casino and resort would generate $170 million for the city’s general fund. That revenue includes an upfront cash payment of $25.5 million to the city. One Casino estimates that over the first ten years, the development would generate $500 million for the city in combined direct, indirect and induced tax revenues.

“It will not impact neighborhoods but will ultimately become a beacon for commerce,” said Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins “There're going to be people. They're going to come from all over, up and down 95. They’ll have a reason to stop over.”

If approved, Liggins said he plans to break ground on the development next April. The casino and hotel won’t be completed until two years after that in 2024.

Despite its promised economic benefits, residents and activists say the casino’s true impacts on the economic and mental health of Richmonders aren’t worth the money.

Casinos benefit specific local communities

Proponents of the proposed development argue it’ll provide a long-awaited investment in Southside. Reva Trammell, who represents part of Southside on Richmond City Council, including the proposed casino location, says her community has been traditionally left behind by the city.

“It's going to help the whole city of Richmond. And I'm tired of people saying ‘no’ to something in my district,” Trammell said.

Like other critics, Richmond community activist and former City Council candidate Taavaris Spinks describes the casino business as extractive.

“It's like putting an oil derrick in the middle of your neighborhood. It just sucks the wealth from the surrounding area into a corporate entity that isn’t necessarily based here or fully involved in the community,” Spinks said.

In a study of the relationship between casinos and economic growth in 48 states from 2003 to 2012, researchers found casinos had a positive effect on economic growth, but it was relatively small. Casino expansion was estimated to increase short-term income growth by 0.4% and long-term income growth by 0.5% over the nine years they studied. However, after controlling for spatial or neighboring-county correlation effects, the effect of casinos on long-term income growth disappeared, meaning the economic gains are generally short-lived.

For job growth, the same study found that communities with casinos increased their 10-year salary job growth rate by 0.67% over nine years.

One reason why the economic benefit of casinos is limited is because they are designed to keep customers inside. They provide all the amenities, like restaurants, spa services and hotels, that someone visiting Richmond would want to make their stay comfortable. As a result, visitors don’t tend to venture outside casinos and into local businesses to seek out those services.

“They are designed to keep you inside of their building,” Spinks said,  “because the longer you're there, the more likely you are to lose money.”

Instead of revitalizing local economies, according to a 1999 study authorized by Congress, casinos transform communities by becoming the dominant industry. The study concluded that local governments and businesses become “dependent partners” in the business of gambling and that businesses and services in those areas change to accommodate casino visitors before local residents, and that only those that make that change survive.

Businesses that cater to casino visitors, activists say, are the wrong kind of development to encourage in Southside.

“Unless there's some kind of council action, we could see payday lenders and the types of businesses that also have a hand in sucking money out of the community and sending it elsewhere,” Spinks said.

Jobs at the One Casino

Trammell says she supports the casino not just because it’ll bring business to her district, but because of the jobs it will create.

“It's going to bring in jobs. It's going to bring in more revenue into not only my district, but also the whole city,” Trammell said.

Urban One estimates it will employ 4,100 construction workers in the process of building its casino and resort. Once it opens, the development will support 1,500 full-time jobs. The average salary of these jobs will be $55,000 per year, and they’ll include both benefits and a share of the casino’s profits equal to between three and five thousand dollars per employee per year, according to Liggins. The starting salary at the development will be $15 per hour.

Advocates point out that by the time the development opens, the minimum wage in Virginia will already have risen $12 per hour. Only two years after the development opens, Virginia’s minimum wage will automatically increase to $15 per hour.

“We're giving city resources and preferences to a project that purports to, at minimum, give residents what they could get working at McDonald's by the time it's done,” Spinks said.

Once it’s construction is complete, there will also be limits on who qualifies for some positions within the casino. That’s because under Virginia law, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or felony involving “wagering, fraudulent use of a gaming credential, unlawful transmission of information, touting, bribery, embezzlement, distribution or possession of drugs”, or any crime considered by the Department to be detrimental to the honesty and integrity of the casino, can be barred from participating in the casino’s gambling operations.

Advocates, including NAACP Virginia State Conference Executive Director Da’Quan Love, say they’re concerned about the exclusion of people with criminal histories from this industry.

“The NAACP has already launched an investigation into crafting a policy position on this,” Love said. “We've got to make sure that this is gonna allow us to create opportunities.”

However, because those restrictions only apply to employees involved in gambling, Liggins says there will still be plenty of opportunities for people with criminal histories at the casino and resort.

“I’m also certain that there are many, many other positions that will be available throughout the resort [for] returning citizens who’ve paid their debt,” Liggins said.

A Black-owned business

Despite its reservations about employment restrictions in casinos, the NAACP Virginia State Conference has endorsed the One Casino. According to Love, their endorsement was based in large part on Urban One’s success as a prominent Black-owned business and partner.

“They are a Black-owned business and an organization that has a long-standing history and relationship positively going back for several decades. And so first and foremost, we know that they are trusted partners,” Love said.

Love says Urban One is working with his organization to ensure at least half of the company’s employees belong to minority racial and ethnic groups. They’ve also committed to hiring 60% of their workforce locally and already have agreements with several local Black-owned restaurants, including Mama J’s, to open locations in the resort. Love says this commitment to hiring Black community members and supporting their businesses is another reason why the NAACP Virginia State Conference supports One Casino.

“The fact that they're inviting local Black and minority entrepreneurs to open restaurants and other businesses inside of this development, the fact that it's going to be on the Southside and help to revitalize that area of our community, those are all factors that combined together, provide the NAACP with confidence that this is a project that we should stand behind,” Love said.

However, activists say just because the business is Black-owned, doesn’t mean it’s not harming Black Richmonders.

“We're not trying to excuse exploitation because the shade of the exploiter might be closer to my shade than someone else's,” said community activist and former City Council candidate Allan-Charles Chipman. “There's always room at the table for people who are willing to exploit others for profit.”

Richmond police will be watching live

Part of Urban One’s proposal to the city is a promise that they will provide the Richmond Police Department with access to their security room — and real time access to all the exterior video cameras on the property.

Their proposal also states that the company will give preference to off-duty Richmond Police personnel when hiring private security. Liggins says he even offered to build a substation for the department on the development’s grounds, but Richmond police turned him down.

Trammell says she’s excited about this collaboration.

“That’s probably [going to be] the safest place in the city,” Trammell said.

Activists including Love say they’re worried about this increased surveillance of Southside, a historically Black and marginalized community.

“We are concerned with increased police surveillance,” Love said. “If these are not measures that you see at Colonial Downs, then I'm not sure if they need to be at One Casino.”

Where does the casino money go?

In addition to the $25.5 million the city will receive if the referendum is agreed to, it also expects to receive a percentage of the casino’s gambling revenue every year.

If the development is completed on schedule, before Oct. 1, 2024, then for the first thirteen months of operation, Urban One will pay the city 1.875% of its gambling revenue plus its required city sports wagering payment. After those thirteen months, the company will pay the city either $5 million each year or 3% of their annual revenue, whichever is greater.

However, where that money ends up has yet to be decided. According to Chipman, activists have no faith that City Council will allocate the money to Southside, where it’s desperately needed.

“So we already have a track record, a history, that the same people who are pitching this casino, behind closed doors are making a decision to leave Southside out,” Chipman said. “It's an assumption that new revenue to the city will mean new revenue for the Southside, but there is no dedication, there is no promise to that. And greater than a promise of that, there is a pattern of doing the exact opposite.”

Richmond City Councilmember Mike Jones says he plans to introduce legislation that would devote at least 60% of the $25.5 million to improving living conditions in Southside. The rest of the city’s revenue from the casino, he says, will likely end up in the general fund.

“I just want to make sure that there's an emphasis in neighborhoods that have been historically overlooked and divested from,” Jones said.

According to Trammell, she expects the rest of the council will support legislation along those lines.

“We're going to have that money, and I'm quite sure. We're not gonna be left out anymore. It's our time,” Trammell said.

Where do casinos make their money?

According to a 2018 Forbes article, casinos in America make between 65% and 80% of their gambling income from slot machines. That means that it’s not high rollers, or ‘whales,’ who financially support casinos. It’s regular players who make these corporations money.

According to the National Center for Responsible Gambling, preliminary research indicates that ethnic and racial minorities are negatively affected by gambling at higher rates than the general population. It also found that young people are between six and nine times more likely to struggle with gambling addiction than the rest of the population.

“Those aged below the age of 18 are far more susceptible, vulnerable to developing gambling problems,” said Dr. Mark Griffiths, who specializes in addiction research at Nottingham Trent University in England.

Griffiths also notes that elderly women in America are particularly susceptible to becoming addicted to slot machines. The elderly in general, according to the AARP, are aggressively targeted by casinos, especially for slot machines.

According to the U.S. Census, 46.9% of Richmond residents identify as Black or African American. Despite studies showing that they’re more affected by gambling, Liggins says he doesn’t expect the majority of his clientele to be Black or economically disadvantaged.

“80% of the customer base is going to come from outside of the city. And like I said, it won't even be 50% minority customers,” Liggins said.

To activists, however, it doesn’t matter whether the casino patrons are Black or white, locals or visitors to Richmond. What matters, they say, is that someone is being taken advantage of.

“What it takes to generate these revenues is predatory, exploitative and it's unethical,” Chipman said. “We can have development where everyone wins and not where someone has to lose big in order for someone else to win big.”

A rise in gambling addiction

Even before the casino has been voted on, the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling is already raising alarm bells about the rising number of calls their gambling addiction hotline is receiving.

According to Dr. Carolyn Hawley, president of the council, there were a total of 311 intakes from the Virginia Problem Gambling Helpline in 2019 and 335 in 2020. Over just the first six months of 2021, there have already been 394 calls to the helpline.

“The increase in the number of calls made to the Virginia Problem Gambling Helpline corresponds with the expansion of gambling availability within the commonwealth,” said Hawley. “The jump in call volume signifies a need for funding to grow a network of treatment professionals who can be available to treat this rising need.”

Dr. Lyndon Aguiar is the clinical director of Williamsville Wellness, the only gambling addiction treatment center in Virginia. He says his organization has also observed an increase in people seeking help with gambling  over the last year and a half.

"[In] our outpatient office, we've seen more patients coming in,” Aguiar said.

Aguiar says that increase is due to loosening restrictions on gambling in Virginia, including the recent introduction of slot-like gambling machines into convenience stores. The Virginia Lottery and horse betting were legalized in statewide referendums in 1987 and 1988 respectively.

“I feel like that’s just going to magnify the effects of the gambling disorder, making it more accessible to the people in Richmond. So I'm very concerned about the potential for an explosion of gambling disorder to manifest in our commonwealth,” Aguiar said.

If that explosion does occur, Aguiar warns the commonwealth doesn’t have enough gambling addiction treatment professionals to accommodate it. Currently, he says there are only a handful of practitioners in Virginia.

“Part of the challenges with other treatment centers is that they don't have people who are specially trained to do gambling, to treat gambling disorder,” Aguiar said. “There's only a few of us, less than a dozen of us I think, of gambling specialists in the state.”

The impact of gambling addiction on people’s lives can have far-reaching and even deadly consequences.

According to the 1999 federal study, one-in-five people who are diagnosed with a gambling disorder attempt suicide. The study further notes that in a survey of nearly 400 Gamblers Anonymous members, two-thirds had contemplated suicide, 47% planned to kill themselves and 77% stated that they wanted to die. The study also found that gambling addiction is more prevalent among people who are unhoused.

“The rate of suicidality will be higher. The rates of criminality will be higher. The rates of financial problems and bankruptcy will be higher. The rates of family, domestic violence will be higher,” Griffiths said. “These are all things that we know are not just associated with gambling addiction, but are associated with most addictions.”

According to Griffiths, only about 1% of the general population gambles excessively. An even smaller percentage of the population has a gambling addiction. Griffiths says only about 0.2% of people qualify as truly addicted to gambling.

Liggins says the fact that a small minority are adversely affected by gambling shouldn’t prevent everyone else from enjoying it as an innocent form of entertainment.

"We shouldn't shut down the economic opportunity for the entire village," Liggins said. He says everyone has the "free agency" to decide whether to gamble, although medical experts largely agree that addictions are outside of people's voluntary control.

To mitigate the impact of the casino on residents struggling with  addiction, Urban One has committed to spending between $100,000 and $200,000 annually to fund mental health professionals and resources to prevent and treat excessive gambling. In addition, Urban One’s proposal includes a commitment to invest at least $16 million over the next ten years to support research initiatives and the missions of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building and Richmond Public Schools.

Chipman says that money isn’t enough to undo the harm created by the casino.

“They say, ‘Oh, we've already gotten your money. And since we feel bad, we'll give you a little bit of the money we've extracted from you, in order to help you with this addiction [to] this game that we've lured you into,’” Chipman said. “Is there a price that's good enough to make us feel good about exploitation?”

Responsible gambling

According to gambling addiction experts, responsible gambling is possible for most people.

“There is no evidence that moderate drinking or moderate gambling has any ill effects on people. It's only when these activities are taken to excess that we would classify them as problematic and or addictive,” Griffith said.

But Griffith says there are ways for corporations like Urban One to let people enjoy the casino without losing their life savings.

Those interventions could include limits on the amount of money a player can wager at any time. In Sweden, the government recently limited the amount gamblers can transfer into online casino accounts to 5,00 Swedish crowns, or $495, a week.

“I personally think it should be mandatory, that all gamblers should actually have to set their financial limits,” Griffith said.

Liggins said he’s open to exploring the possibility of letting customers set limits for themselves when they enter the casino.

“It sounds like a way of assisting players in self-policing,” Liggins said. “I think we're open to all kinds of alternative ways to help people manage their compulsions and to avoid addiction. And so I would absolutely be open to new and different ideas and strategies to do that.”

Politicians weigh in

Councilmembers Jones and Trammell both told VPM they’re voting in favor of the proposed referendum.

“I don’t believe we legislate morality,” Jones said. “And I believe that if an individual wishes to gamble, it's their choice.”

Urban One’s casino proposal has been endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam and gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

“I’m voting yes for One Casino + Resort because this project will provide economic opportunity and 4,500 jobs for some of our most underserved communities as well as bringing the city and state much needed revenue for schools, roads and more,” Northam said.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, however, has come out against the casino proposal. In a statement earlier this month, his office said, “He believes there are better ways to enhance economic development in Richmond.”

If you have or suspect someone you know has had suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255.

If you have concerns about the way gambling affects you or your loved ones, you can call a 24-hour anonymous hotline operated by the National Council on Problem Gambling (1-800-522-4700). The network is a single national access point to local resources for those seeking help for a gambling problem. The network consists of 28 call centers which provide resources and referrals for all 50 states, Canada and the US Virgin Islands. Help is available 24/7 and is 100% confidential.

The National Problem Gambling Helpline Network also includes text and chat services. These features enable those who are gambling online or on their mobile phone to access help the same way they play. One call, text, or chat will get you to problem gambling help anywhere in the U.S. 24/7/365.

Help is also available via an online peer support forum at .

CORRECTION: We misspelled Allan Charles-Chipman and Lyndon Aguiar incorrectly in a prior version of this article.

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