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

Bingo hall takes Richmond casino referendum to court

Building with glass front
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
The John Marshall Courts Building near downtown Richmond, which houses the Richmond Circuit Court.

Richmond Lodge No. 1 of the Good Lions Inc. claims the latest bidding process violated state law.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge heard a charitable organization’s arguments Tuesday for removing a casino referendum from the citywide November ballot.

Richmond Lodge No. 1 of the Good Lions Inc. — a nonprofit that runs gaming events at a bingo hall in Southside — is asking the court to reverse its July decision to allow the referendum to be placed on the November ballot.

Chief Judge W. Reilly Marchant said he’ll decide next Wednesday whether the nonprofit can present its case to the court that the city’s process for awarding the half-billion-dollar casino complex was unconstitutional.

In a motion filed late last week, Good Lions claims proceeds from its games will dry up if a casino is built in the city. It cited a 2019 report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which found that casino gambling would “reduce revenue generated by currently authorized forms of gaming.” The report projected a statewide decline of 4.4%, “but there would be larger localized impacts to organizations located near casinos.”

At the time the report was published, all authorized forms of gaming in Virginia were legally required to support designated causes, including public education. In 2019, the Virginia General Assembly authorized non-charitable casino gambling in five localities, provided area voters approved.

After Richmond voters narrowly defeated a 2021 referendum to bring a casino to the city, City Council revived the proposal on June 12, passing a resolution selecting RVA Entertainment Holdings, a joint venture of Urban One Inc., the same operator selected in 2021, and Churchill Downs under a revised contract.

As required by state law, on July 20 the city sought approval from the Virginia Lottery Board, which signed off. And five days later, the city filed a petition requesting the Richmond Circuit Court authorize the referendum.

Marchant signed a court order allowing the city to place the $562 million project on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Good Lions claims in the motion that the council awarded the casino contract to RVA Entertainment Holdings without conducting another competitive bidding process, in violation of the Virginia Public Procurement Act. It accuses the city of rubber-stamping the contract, despite significant changes to the original proposal as well as Richmond's economy.

“To date, there has been little, if any, public comment on the proposal — one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of the City of Richmond,” the motion states.

On Tuesday, Marchant told attorneys for the city and Good Lions that when he was asked to consider the referendum in July, “My court's gut reaction was ‘Does anyone have to give notice?’” However, he said, “It seemed to us that [the city] touched all the bases.”

Marchant said Good Lions’ assertion that the bidding process was flawed was beyond the scope of what he was asked to consider when he signed off on the referendum. He asked both parties to return Friday with more evidence and said he’d have a written decision on whether Good Lions can intervene by Aug. 23.

An attorney representing the city told Marchant that suspending the July order, pending the resolution of Good Lions’ motion, “could derail” the referendum process in part because the city is already preparing for the 2023 election.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.