Richmond, Virginia Advances Casino Plan, Referendum on November Ballot

Posted on: June 13, 2023, 10:25h. 

Last updated on: June 13, 2023, 11:00h.

The Richmond City Council voted overwhelmingly Monday to advance plans to put a second casino referendum on the November ballot.

Richmond City Council President Mike Jones
Richmond City Council President Mike Jones seen in a 2019 City Council Meeting. The council, led by Jones, overwhelmingly approved a new casino measure in the city. (Image: VPM News)

The 8-1 vote by council members would give Richmond residents another chance to approve plans for a $500 million casino on the city’s south side. That’s after a similar ballot measure was narrowly defeated by voters in 2021.

Project supporters touted the wide-ranging plans from Black-focused media conglomerate Urban One and its partner, Churchill Downs. Their goal is to build a resort-style complex complete with hotel, spa, entertainment, fine dining, and other amenities. The project would be located in an area of the city that has seen little investment in recent years.

“It’s in a part of the city, believe it or not, that most people in Southside don’t go to every day, and I don’t think we talk about that enough. It’s in an area that will probably never see a half-billion-dollar investment, and that’s not to condemn that area, that’s simply to speak the truth,” City Council President Michael Jones said at Monday’s meeting. “That area will probably never see a half-billion dollar investment. So you take this deal. You take the deal every day and twice on Sunday … It is something that will revolutionize that part of the city.”

Investment Touted

Voters in 2021 rejected an earlier casino referendum 51% to 49%. But supporters said that campaign was plagued by misinformation and didn’t accurately convey the economic benefits and jobs the project would bring.

Jones rejected moralistic arguments against the casino project. Residents who want to gamble will find a way, he said, adding that he would “much rather capture these dollars locally” than see them go to nearby Petersburg, Va., the site of a competing casino proposal.  He predicted opponents would deploy more “dog whistles” against the project.

“Crime this and crime that. Those are just dog whistles,” he said.

Public Speaks Out

The council heard from members of the public both for and against the casino plan at Monday’s meeting. Debbie Rowe, a resident opposed to the casino, said it’s unfair for council members to attempt a redo of the 2021 referendum. “Our vote should stand,” she said at the meeting, adding that holding another casino vote would create “unnecessary friction in the city.” She contended leaders should be addressing more pressing concerns such as gun violence and homelessness.

Churchill Downs, the home of the annual Kentucky Derby, threw its weight behind the project after taking over for Peninsula Pacific Entertainment’s (P2E), Urban One’s original partner in the project.

Jason Sauer, a senior vice president at Churchill Downs, told council members that the company has pursued other successful partnerships with local companies. They are developing casinos in Chicago and Cincinnati, and the company is already working with a Richmond-based team on the newest proposal. “We look forward to a long partnership together,” he said.

Next Steps

The council’s endorsement of a new casino referendum was expected. But supporters must clear a few additional hurdles before the language is presented to voters in November.

Local courts and state regulators will have to sign off on the arrangement. Opponents of the Richmond casino project still hope to block progress this year through the state legislature. 

State Sen. Joe Morrissey (D) has sought to block the Richmond vote to ease the path for a casino in Petersburg, Va., about 25 miles to the south. He said he hopes state legislators will pass a budget before their session expires July 1 that would include language blocking a new referendum, as happened last year.

No action is expected until after the state holds primary elections on June 20, where several key legislators face important races.