Stoney, council aim for second Southside casino vote
A Randolph-Macon College political scientist says the move 'smacks of anti-democracy.'
Richmond City Council and Mayor Levar Stoney have revived their push for a casino in the city’s Southside. They’ll attempt to give Richmond voters another chance to approve the project in November — two years after 51% voted “no” on the proposal.
Council introduced three measures related to the potential ballot question Monday, all of which will be heard on June 5 in an Organizational Development Committee meeting.
Eighth District Councilor Reva Trammell said a casino and concert venue in her district would be a boon for her constituents, creating jobs in and around the proposed facility.
“The casino is not just a casino to go gambling,” Trammell said. She said her constituents support the casino, and the possible jobs and economic growth that could come with it. The facility would be located on Walmsley Boulevard at Commerce Road — land currently owned by an Altria subsidiary.
They vote and run in the House of Delegates every two years. Right? City Council, every four. So, am I saying, ‘Hey, they already voted once two years ago’? Well, no, we have the right to run [it] as much as we want. And so, that's what we're doing.
Council President and 9th District Councilor Mike Jones said it’s not immediately clear whether the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin will let a referendum move forward or again move to stop it in the budget — like last year, when legislators decided to take a closer look at a Petersburg casino. But he said the vote shouldn’t be controversial.
“They vote and run in the House of Delegates every two years. Right? City Council, every four,” Jones told VPM News. “So, am I saying, ‘Hey, they already voted once two years ago’? Well, no, we have the right to run [it] as much as we want. And so, that's what we're doing.”
Randolph-Macon College political science professor Richard Meagher said the move for a second referendum “smacks of anti-democracy.”
“You don't have a referendum every year until you get the outcome you want,” he said. “And plus, there's no way that if there had been a ‘yes’ vote, the mayor would say ‘Well, let's just make sure and have it again, two years later,’”
But Meagher said the mayor and Trammell might have a point in saying Southside residents, who overwhelmingly supported the casino, deserve a chance to be heard, despite how “unseemly” a second referendum might be.
“There was something unseemly about the vote itself, the way that the demographics and the different areas of the city voted,” Meagher said. “You definitely don't want to discount the overlooked Southside, which is constantly kind of ignored in the city and sort of seems last in line for any improvements in any economic development.”
Most districts in the northwest portion of the city, where residents are primarily white, voted against the casino two years ago. A majority of districts south of the river, where most residents are Black and brown,
supported the referendum.
Stoney said in a statement to VPM News that the casino would bring 1,300 well-paying jobs, as well as $30 million in city revenue yearly.
“[The casino will] allow us to expand funding options for critical community needs, such as public schools, community infrastructure and affordable housing, and relieve tax burden on City taxpayers,” Stoney said.
But opponents to the previous effort questioned whether the economic benefits would fully materialize in Richmond, pointing to other projects’ disappointing returns elsewhere in the country, including Maryland.
Sacrificing the well-being of the citizens is not the way to fund the city.
Jeremy Davis, a Richmond resident who spoke in opposition to the casino at Monday’s council meeting, questioned whether messaging was an issue in the last referendum, citing billboards, radio ads and public events in support.
“If the resolution passes this year, will the members of this council be willing to revisit the issue in 2025 for a best of three showdown?” he asked.
Davis argued the casino would generate much of its touted revenue by exploiting vulnerable populations and people addicted to gambling.
“Sacrificing the well-being of the citizens is not the way to fund the city,” he said.
The state did move to set aside 2.5% of sports betting revenues for the Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund and set up a committee to steer public health awareness campaigns on the issue. Less than one percent of casino revenues go toward that fund.
Meagher said, like Jones, he’s not sure how the General Assembly will handle competing bids for casinos in neighboring Richmond and Petersburg. Legislators killed a Petersburg casino bill this year, but Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Petersburg) has indicated he’s fighting for budget language to again bar Richmond’s second referendum.
Meagher said the fate of both casino proposals could depend on the June 20 primary election between Morrissey and former Del. Lashrecse Aird.
“If he loses his primary, then definitely, I think that will be the deathblow to the Petersburg casino, because he was the one in the General Assembly ... most interested in pushing it forward,” Meagher said.
As for what a 2023 referendum might look like, Meagher said the odds are stacked in favor of the city and developers. It’s an unusual situation, but he said voters might feel fatigued from the last round.
“Lower turnout and lower excitement on the second time around would favor the side with more resources,” he said.
Casinos are still new to Virginia. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Bristol opened July 8, 2022, and the Rivers Casino in Portsmouth opened Jan. 23. Two more have been approved by voters in Norfolk and Danville, and all by wide margins. A temporary Ceasars location opened in Danville on May 15 — with a full facility coming next year.
In April, the Virginia Lottery reported that the Bristol and Portsmouth casinos posted $35 million in total revenues. That generated $6.3 million in taxes deposited into the Gaming Proceeds Fund, which will be split between localities and state programs.
Out of those April proceeds, Bristol pulled in about $842,000, while Portsmouth made almost $1.3 million. The Problem Gambling fund got $50,933, while $12,733 went to the Family and Children’s Trust Fund.
Remaining funds will be used for school renovation, improvements and construction, according to state law.