Virginia Casino Plan Causes Controversy

For years, Virginia has been embarking on a journey to expand its casino industry, marking a significant shift in the state’s approach to gambling. Once known for its strict stance against casinos, Virginia has gradually opened its doors to the possibility of legalized gambling, driven by the potential economic benefits and changing attitudes towards gaming. 

This shift concluded in 2020 when Virginia voters approved the construction of casinos in several cities, signaling a new era in the state’s gaming landscape. Since then, Virginia has been navigating the complexities of implementing these changes, facing challenges, controversies, and opportunities along the way. 

When voters in Virginia rejected the casino proposal in Richmond

In 2020, Virginia voters approved the construction of casinos in Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Bristol. Richmond, the state capital, was also eligible to hold a referendum on the issue but opted to wait a year before allowing voters to decide.

In 2021, Richmond became the only eligible city in Virginia where citizens voted against casino gambling within its city limits. According to a report from The Virginian-Pilot, 51.2% of voters rejected the initiative, while 48.8% were in favor. 

The difference was approximately 1,200 votes, a surprising outcome given the ease with which other cities had passed similar initiatives the previous year. In March of the same year, six gambling companies also competed for the rights to build a casino in Richmond. 

Bally’s, Golden Nugget, The Cordish Companies, Urban One, and two tribes vied for the city’s single gaming license. Eventually, the city of Richmond narrowed down the contenders for its casino project from six to three: Bally’s, Urban One, and the Maryland-based Cordish Companies, which operates the LIVE!-branded casinos. 

Eventually, Richmond’s casino advisory panel selected Urban One to develop the ONE Casino + Resort. The proposed casino was expected to generate 1,300 jobs and provide $25.5 million in immediate revenue to the city government. It was heralded as the first and only Black-owned casino and resort in the nation. 

The ambitious plans included a tower with 250 hotel rooms, a 3,000-seat theater, 100,000 square feet of casino gaming space, 15 bars and restaurants, and a 15,000-square-foot soundstage for media productions.

Urban One, a Maryland-based media company that operates 55 radio stations and one cable network, aimed to venture into the gambling industry with this project. They partnered with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment and planned to build the resort on Richmond’s South Side, near Interstate 95.

Cordish company is now named as the potential casino operator

After voters in Richmond, Virginia, rejected a casino plan for the second time last year, attention quickly turned to the nearby city of Petersburg. Last week, the Petersburg City Council approved a potential casino operator in a no-bid process, a decision that has sparked controversy and is likely to result in legal action against the city.

In a no-bid process, the city selects a contractor or partner without soliciting competitive bids from multiple entities. This method can expedite the selection process but often raises concerns about transparency and fairness. Critics argue that it can lead to favoritism and a lack of scrutiny over the chosen partner’s qualifications and the terms of the agreement.

The decision to award the casino project to Cordish without a competitive bidding process has therefore raised eyebrows and drawn criticism, with opponents questioning the rationale behind bypassing a more transparent and competitive selection method. 

As a result, the city is likely to face legal challenges from those who believe the process was not conducted fairly. The Cordish Companies, a Baltimore-based firm specializing in hospitality, gaming, and real estate, has been named the potential operator.  Cordish is known for its Live! brand of casino and entertainment venues across the country.

Unite Here Local 25, a union representing hospitality workers has vowed to sue, arguing that the city council violated state transparency laws by selecting the casino partner behind closed doors.

Sam Epps, the union’s political director, criticized the City of Petersburg for its actions, stating they exhibited a blatant disregard for legal and democratic principles. He explained that Petersburg had initiated a competitive request for proposal (RFP) process meant to be transparent and fair. However, according to Epps, the city council misused a closed session to decide on the casino operator, undermining the integrity of the process.

The city stops the bidding process

As mentioned at the very beginning, Virginia legalized casinos in 2020, requiring local voter approval for each project. While residents in Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, and Norfolk approved casino plans in 2020, Petersburg voters are set to decide on the issue in November.

Initially, Petersburg city leaders announced a competitive bidding process for the casino project, with several major companies, including Bally’s, Cordish, Penn Entertainment, Rush Street Gaming, and Warrenton Group/Delaware North, competing for the job. 

However, when the city council later announced a no-bid process, awarding the partnership to Cordish, it raised concerns about transparency and fairness. There were problems when it was revealed that the city manager had first approved Bally’s. But, pressure from the General Assembly reportedly led to choosing Cordish instead. 

As a result, the city has decided to stop the bidding process. They said the letter of intent signed by the manager didn’t have proper approval from the city council. Also, it wasn’t sent to Bally’s as planned but was sent back to the sender because of conditions related to SB 628.

Although Virginia law does not require a bidding process for a casino in Petersburg, the council’s actions have been criticized by both the union and state leaders. Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham noted that the council was pressured by the legislature to choose Cordish. 

State Senator Laschrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) remarked that the city’s actions reflect a continuing challenge in its governance to secure an economic development project that the citizens of Petersburg have a genuine say in and that truly benefits everyone.

Final Thoughts

The controversy has left the future of the casino project uncertain, with legal challenges and public criticism likely to influence its progression. Given the uncertainty surrounding the casino project due to legal challenges and public criticism, it may be prudent for the involved parties to reassess their approach and address the concerns raised. 

This could involve ensuring transparency and fairness in the selection process, actively engaging with stakeholders, and potentially revisiting the decision-making process to uphold democratic principles. Additionally, open dialogue and collaboration with relevant authorities and community representatives could help navigate the challenges and pave the way for a more inclusive and mutually beneficial outcome for all involved.

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