Richmond casino fight moves to next stage after City Council vote
A 2021 referendum was narrowly defeated.
Richmond City Council voted Monday to add a casino referendum to the November ballot, setting up a do-over of the failed 2021 vote in a political landscape that significantly differs.
Next is for the Virginia Lottery to review and approve the gaming operator, which the city submitted for approval Tuesday. Then, the Richmond Circuit Court can put it on the ballot.
But campaigning appears to already be underway, and new messaging for the casino has emerged: it as a resort and not just a casino.
If those steps are completed, voters will have to weigh whether a major development in an economically depressed part of Richmond is worth the risk of increased gambling addiction and harm to vulnerable people.
A study commissioned by the city said that development would total $562.5 million and bring 1,300 jobs.
Monday’s three casino-related ordinances passed easily through council, with only 2nd District Councilor Katherine Jordan voting against one that authorized the referendum. Passage through council was largely expected, after a committee vote last week only had opposition from Jordan.
While several residents spoke in favor of the development at Monday’s meeting, others shared concerns that a casino would contribute to gambling addiction and harm vulnerable people. Some residents questioned if it was appropriate to conduct a do-over referendum so soon.
“We tried to introduce more factual messaging to the discourse. And we looked at a number of academic journals, and peer reviewed research, all of which, more or less unanimously confirms that unbalanced casinos basically drained communities of funds,” said David Dominique, who organized against the casino two years ago, in an interview Tuesday.
“It's an egregious act for council to ignore our vote, and to referendum us to the point of exhaustion,” said Debbie Rowe during the citizen comment period.
One of Monday’s ordinances selected RVA Entertainment Holdings, LLC — a collaboration between Urban ONE, a media and entertainment company, and Churchill Downs, a casino and horse track operator — as the city’s casino gaming operator. The company would pay Richmond $25.5 million if a referendum is successful. It’s aiming to open the casino by May 2026.
The measure is not substantially different from the one voters rejected two years ago, but Churchill downs is new to the venture. In 2021, Urban One teamed up with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, much of which was acquired by Churchill Downs in February 2022.
In a tight race, “no” votes overcame a well-funded campaign encouraging voters to approve the casino development. Urban One and RVA Entertainment Holdings, LLC spent $2.6 million on the referendum in 2021. An anti-casino PAC had $231,225.
A political battle
Mayor Levar Stoney and 8th District Councilor Reva Trammell didn’t wait for the referendum’s official passage to begin campaigning for this November. The two spoke at a meeting of 8th District residents at a Southside restaurant last Thursday.
“If you are on the fence, you need to get off the fence,” Stoney said. “It's time to make sure folks that are — say it with me — a roof over their head and food on the table,” as residents echoed the catchphrase.
Residents at the meeting wore purple shirts that were worn by casino supporters and campaigners in 2021. Pizza and drinks were provided to attendees, partly funded by members of Teamsters Local 322. A spokesperson for the union said it was not an “official community outreach action.”
Generally, organized labor has supported the casino and other major developments as jobs are created during the construction.
Different electoral circumstances may swing the results of this year’s referendum, as the governor’s mansion was also up for grabs in 2021. The 8th District overwhelmingly voted for the proposal then, and turnout could make the difference this fall.
“I worked hard in the eighth and ninth district, I worked very hard. And I'm going to be in other districts,” said Trammell.
The results of 2021’s referendum also has placed a different lens of race onto this year’s referendum, since areas that tended to be whiter and more affluent voted against the casino, while areas with more Black residents voted in support. Officials and businesses supporting the project have brought this up.
“We're going to hear dog whistles. ... Crime this, crime that. Those are just dog whistles," said Council President Mike Jones, who represents the 9th District. “Please stop speaking on behalf of Southside residents, they are grown.”
A 2022 publication by the Richmond Federal Reserve cited research that found a positive relationship between alcohol-related fatal traffic incidents and counties with casinos. However, when visitors from outside the locality are excluded, “casinos draw crime at rates similar to other tourist attractions.”
“I think it's totally plausible that there were white citizens of Richmond who are afraid primarily of the bogeyman of black crime coming to their own community, and that that's why they voted because of racism, and that's painful and it's disappointing,” said Dominique “And I think it hurts, it hurts the principled cause that that people like myself and Allan-Charles Chipman, we're undertaking because race wasn't the reason that we were fighting the casino.”
At the 8th District meeting, Stoney and Trammell pitched the project as a way to boost economic development.
“People are going to have a job,” Trammell said. “You heard them say tonight ‘we don't have a job. We need a job.’”
The city’s commissioned study said that the development would contribute an average of $29.7 million in general fund revenue annually for its first five years.
The Richmond Fed’s publication argued that “Research suggests that casinos are more likely to support economic growth in less dense areas that do not have to compete with nearby casinos, but the evidence of increased tax revenue is limited.”
Trammell argued the development is about more than a casino: “It’s a resort, it’s entertainment.”
Stoney also mostly avoided calling the casino-centered development a casino, instead calling it a “destination resort.”
“They've wiped the word casino from the messaging and the branding. And their goal is, is to make people think that this is a fun thing that's being done for Richmond's benefit.,” Dominique said.
State budget hurdle
Competition with nearby Petersburg is also an unresolved question.
Richmond City Council had to remove a casino-related referendum from last year’s ballot after the state budget included a provision preventing a do-over of a failed casino referendum. Richmond was the only locality the provision applied to.
It’s unclear whether this year’s update to the state budget will have another such provision, which Petersburg officials are hoping for. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s budget did not include that language, but he has currently put development in Petersburg as one of his public facing priorities.
A state Senate finance committee killed bills in 2022 and 2023 that would have allowed Petersburg to hold its own casino referendum. But that also would have been in closer proximity to two new casinos in the greater Hampton Roads and possibly cut into those businesses.