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Read more VPM News coverage of the historic 2023 elections in Virginia.

Richmond committee OKs updated casino plans

A rendering of the proposed ONE Casino + Resort in Richmond
A rendering of the proposed ONE Casino + Resort in Richmond. (Courtesy of Urban One)

Some members of the public, however, questioned why another referendum is necessary.

A Richmond City Council committee recommended authorizing a do-over of a modified proposal for a casino in south Richmond on Monday. If the effort is successful, a ballot measure could take place this fall, two years after voters narrowly defeated a proposed casino in November 2021.

City studies indicated that the $562.5 million dollar development would create 1,300 jobs in south Richmond. Detractors argue that a casino would harm the area’s most vulnerable people and contribute to gambling addiction.

“It’s a referendum and yes, we have the right to have another one,” said councilwoman Reva Trammell. She represents the 8th District, which contains the site of the prospective casino — the Commerce Road Industrial area between Richmond Highway and the James River.

Some members of the public, however, questioned why another referendum is necessary.

“The people voted against having a casino in the city. So, is this to authorize another referendum?” said Rain Burroughs during citizen comment. “If that doesn't pass, will there be a third referendum?”

Technically, City Council’s organizational development committee pushed forward three casino-related resolutions to be considered at next week’s full council meeting on June 12.

RVA Entertainment Holdings, LLC, a collaboration between Urban ONE, a media and entertainment company, and Churchill Downs, a casino and horse track operator, would be the city’s casino gaming operator.

May 2026 is the targeted opening for the gaming facility of the casino resort, economic development director Leonard Sledge told the committee.

If selected, RVA Entertainment Holdings would pay the city of Richmond $25.5 million within 30 days of a referendum passing. A study commissioned by the city said that the casino would bring in $29.7 million in general fund revenue each year.

In July 2021, City Council unanimously approved a similar proposal with RVA Entertainment Holdings.

Richmond is the only of five cities selected by the General Assembly in 2020 to have not yet built a casino. Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol all set up casinos after residents in those cities approved referendums.

Richmond had planned another vote for 2022 until a state budget provision prevented it. The 2023 update to the state budget is still not passed, and budget negotiators aren’t expected to reach an agreement until later this month at the earliest.

Gambling and gaming have seen a large expansion in Virginia over the past five years. In 2018, only three forms of gambling or gaming were allowed: charitable gaming, betting on horse racing, and the state-run lottery. Since then, sports betting, “skill-based” electronic gaming machines that resemble slot machines, and historical horse racing have come into use in Virginia, according to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission.

Calls to the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling’s hotline increased 114% from 2020 to 2022, the organization said.

Nearly all council members present voted for Monday’s proposals. Councilor Katherine Jordan of the 2nd District was the sole vote against. Council President Mike Jones was not at the vote. Jones received $5,000 in 2021 from Alfred Liggins, Urban ONE’s CEO, and $5,000 from the company according to VPAP.

“I think for a lot of us, this is a tough decision. It's not one that I took lightly having lived in a district where we had constituents that voted against this project,” said 5th District Councilor Stephanie Lynch.

Lynch said that looking at how Trammell’s constituents voted — overwhelmingly in favor, according to the Virginia Public Access Project — weighed into her consideration of voting for the project.

Areas near the casino, which have a higher share of the city’s Black residents, largely voted for the casino while wealthier, white districts voted against it. But several prominent Black activists in Richmond, including Allan-Charles Chipman, have questioned whether an industry with the possibility of increasing gaming addiction is the right way to bring money and jobs.

Other local political figures such as Paul Goldman, who was a staunch opponent of the 2021 casino referendum, appear to have softened their stances as well because of the last election’s results.

Before the final City Council vote next week, there is another public hearing.

Updated: June 8, 2023 at 3:15 PM EDT
A previous version of this story misidentified Colonial Downs as a partner in the casino project. Colonial Downs was purchased by Kentucky-based Churchill Downs in 2022.
Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
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