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UPDATED: Casino sweepstakes in Richmond, with at least four new resort proposals on the table

The casino sweepstakes has blown wide open in Richmond, with at least four major casino resort projects proposed on some of the most prominent properties in the city.

The city hasn’t said yet how many proposals it received by its application deadline on Monday afternoon, but aspiring casino developers have announced four projects, including one on the Movieland property in Scott’s Addition, another next to Powhite Parkway and Chippenham Parkway, and two along Commerce Road. State law allows the city to have a single casino, so the city will select its preferred operator.

All of the developers are making pointed pitches for minority investments in their projects, with at least three NFL Hall of Famers making star appearances, and the only Indian tribe with gaming rights in Virginia picking a new site for its proposed casino in South Richmond.

The projects include:

  • a $600 million casino resort proposed on the 17-acre Movieland property by The Cordish Companies, a Maryland developer that already operates casinos under the Live! brand in Baltimore; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; and Tampa and Hollywood, Fla. One of its investors is former NFL star defensive lineman Bruce Smith, a Virginia Beach businessman.
  • a $650 million investment by Bally’s Corp. on a 61-acre property at the northeast quadrant of the Powhite and Chippenham parkways in South Richmond. The project’s investors include two former NFL greats — linebacker Willie Lanier and defensive back Darrell Green.
  • a $517 million project that will be formally announced on Tuesday by Urban One, a Washington media company with radio stations in Richmond, and Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based owner of Colonial Downs racetrack and Rosie’s gaming emporiums. Their resort would be on property now owned by Philip Morris USA at Commerce Road and Walmsley Boulevard. Urban One would be the majority investor in what it says would be the only majority Black-owned casino in the country.
  • a $350 million project proposed by the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in the 5000 block of Commerce Road, about 4 miles south of the property it originally proposed 13 months ago, which is next to South Richmond neighborhoods that opposed the plan.

“We continued to look at every possible site throughout the city, and we came across this site the city has been trying to develop for years,” said Jay Smith, spokesman for the tribe.

The Pamunkey tribe “expects to be the only casino proposal with 100% minority ownership and 100% based in Virginia,” Smith said. “This is the ‘home team’s’ proposal.”

The process

The applications were submitted before a deadline Monday in response to the city’s request for proposals to build a casino resort under a state law enacted last year that legalizes casino gambling in Richmond and four other cities.

Voters in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol already have approved proposed projects in those cities, but the state law adopted last year gives Richmond an additional year to choose a casino developer and project to submit to voters for approval.

A spokesman for Mayor Levar Stoney said Monday that the city will release the names and all proposed sites within the next week or so.

The city recently announced that an evaluation panel that includes two City Council members and seven administration officials will review the proposals with support from an outside consulting firm and make recommendations to Stoney.

The Richmond City Council will then vote on a recommended operator and location, paving the way for a local referendum in the fall.

Cordish proposal

The Cordish Cos. submitted an application to Richmond on Monday to develop the Live! Casino & Hotel Richmond, modeled on the same brand as casino resorts in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and two cities in Florida. The project would include a hotel with 300 rooms and 30 suites, a 4,000-person live entertainment venue and 250,000 square feet of gaming space.

“No gaming or development company in the country has our track record of successfully designing, financing, building and operating large-scale casino entertainment resort destinations in regional markets,” said Zed Smith, chief operating officer and partner at Cordish.

“Every commitment, program and goal contained in our proposal has been successfully achieved time and again by us in other cities in the country,” Smith said in a statement announcing the project. “Our commitment to excellence, creating memorable guest experiences and treating our team members and communities like family is our hallmark.”

Bally’s plan

Bally’s said its project would total more than 1.6 million square feet. It said in a news release that its resort would include “a casino, sportsbook, hotel, resort-style pool, dining and retail outlets, and a flexible space for live entertainment and conferences.”

It said that in addition to Lanier and Green, its strategic partners include Warren Thompson, founder, president and chairman of the board of Thompson Hospitality Corp.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with Bally’s, the Lanier Family and Darrell Green on this historic and transformative project,” Thompson said in the announcement. “Bally’s has a proven track record of supporting local organizations and minority-owned businesses, and is committed to vendor diversity when sourcing products and services.”

Bally’s owns and operates 11 casinos across seven states. Based in Rhode Island, the company operated as Twin River Worldwide Holdings until it purchased the Bally’s name last year from Caesars Entertainment.

The proposed casino site in South Richmond is part of the 172-acre property that previously had been proposed for the Galleria Mall and had been pitched by Virginia as one of three sites in the area for the Amazon HQ2 project.

Bally’s proposed casino would feature 2,500 slot machines and 90 gaming tables, a 250-room hotel and a 3,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor pool.

The company estimates the project ultimately would employ 2,000 people and generate $415 million in gross revenue annually.

Soo Kim, Bally’s board chairman and owner of hedge fund Standard General, touted his ties to Media General, a former Richmond-based media company that dissolved in 2017 after it was purchased by Nexstar Corp. His role at Media General came after the company merged with Young Broadcasting and Lin Media in 2013 and 2014, respectively. (Media General previously owned the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but sold it and other newspaper holdings to Berkshire Hathaway in 2012.)

“As a former director and the largest shareholder of Richmond-headquartered Media General, I have a strong interest in the growth, development and success of this great city,” Kim said.

Pamunkey proposal

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe had been looking for a different site after objections from neighborhoods near the site proposed on Commerce Road at Ingram Avenue more than a year ago.

The Pamunkey tribe submitted a proposal Monday to build a $350 million casino resort in the 5000 block of Commerce Road right off Interstate 95 from Exit 69. The project would include a 300-room hotel and casino with 2,000 slot machines, 75 table games and a sportsbook.

Cordish has opposed a casino proposed by the Pamunkey tribe in Norfolk, where the company owns the Waterside entertainment district. Cordish has threatened to sue Norfolk for monetary damages over the city’s deal with the tribe for a casino resort along the Elizabeth River. The company has contended the deal violates an agreement that would give it the right to build and operate a casino in Norfolk if state law were to allow it.

In Richmond, Cordish proposes to build its casino resort on property that now houses the Movieland at Boulevard Square movie theater complex. Last September, New York-based Bow Tie Partners offered for sale the entire 16.93 acres it owns at the northeast quadrant of North Arthur Ashe Boulevard and West Leigh Street.

“We plan to operate the theater for a while to come,” said Joseph Masher, the chief operating officer of Bow Tie Partners, on Monday. “We have no other comment beyond that.”

News of the casino proposal comes a week after Bow Tie announced plans to turn the parking lot north of its main building into a seasonal temporary drive-in movie theater. The company hopes to get the approvals from City Council so it can start showing first-run movies beginning in March or April and have them running through late October or early November.

Cordish operates the Live! Casino & Hotel Maryland in Baltimore, Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia, Live! Casino Pittsburgh, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, FL and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, FL.

The company said its project in Richmond would include a 250,000-square-foot casino; a hotel with 300 guest rooms and 30 suites; a live entertainment venue with capacity for 4,000 people; 40,000 square feet of multiuse event space; and 18 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

“Our Live! brand is one of the most recognized casino and entertainment brands in the country,” said Zed Smith, the company’s chief operating officer and partner.

“Our project will be a key link in realizing the vision set forth in the Richmond 300 Master Plan for the development of a higher-density dining, entertainment, hospitality and commercial node connecting the Diamond and Boulevard developments to our site and the Washington Football [Team] training facility,” he said.

Walgreens to begin COVID vaccinations in Va. on Thursday, promises equitable access to high-risk communities

Starting Thursday, Walgreens will join CVS Health in offering COVID-19 vaccinations at some of its pharmacies for Virginians who meet the criteria.

The details of how many doses are coming to the state through this federal partnership, the number of stores administering shots, where they’re located and if appointments will sync with Virginia’s registration system remained unclear Monday.

In a statement, the Virginia Department of Health said the agency is “evaluating the situation and is still working on the details related to the pharmacy expansion.” The ability to schedule an appointment on the Walgreens site is not yet available for Virginians.

Giving insight into possible sites is the national chain’s promise to distribute nearly half of its vaccine to areas with limited medical access and high social vulnerability, a metric used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to gauge which communities need the most support during a public health crisis.

Factors include race and ethnicity, poverty, lack of transportation, crowded housing and financial loss.

In Virginia, these areas are heavily concentrated in rural, southern parts of the state such as Emporia, where nearly 1 in 3 residents are living in poverty and more than 63% are Black.

Richmond, where the South Side holds a majority of the city’s COVID cases and hospitalizations, is among the highest-ranking for its population of English learners, crowded housing and limited transportation.

In a media release Friday, Walgreens said it’s collaborating with Uber to offer free rides and is hosting vaccination clinics directly in underserved communities to limit barriers.

The pharmacy chain is also working with faith-based organizations and prioritizing educational outreach to build confidence in a potentially lifesaving vaccine.

CVS is working with Lyft to do the same, in addition to working with nonprofit organizations and free clinics to ensure doses are available in Black and Latino communities. Last week, City Council members called on CVS to use its South Richmond store that’s currently storing vaccines for long-term care facilities, for vaccinations.

Spokesperson Amy Thibault said Monday that the timeline to expand depends on additional doses. The pharmacy chain is receiving 26,000 this week.

But two months into vaccinations, more than 40% of rural or Latino residents said they immediately want the vaccine compared with 35% of Black adults, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation released Jan. 27.

The study also found that messaging, and knowing someone who’s been vaccinated, eased hesitancy.

“Our pharmacy team members reflect the communities we serve and have a deep understanding of the barriers to care among those most impacted by the pandemic,” said Carlos Cubia, Walgreens’ chief global diversity officer. “This initiative, combined with our community presence, allows us to create tailored solutions that can help to improve the health of communities.”

Adding to this federal push is Virginia’s plans to shift its vaccine distribution model toward localities with high COVID hospitalization and death rates among Black and Latino residents ages 65 and up. The change is expected in the next few weeks and would amplify already trusted vaccinators in the hardest-hit ZIP codes.

But as with CVS, trickiness lies in the online appointment system that heavily relies on internet access and doesn’t operate in tandem with the state’s registration system that launched last week.

Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, attributed the limited answers on logistics to a quick turnaround from when the federal government announced the new program, which went into effect in 17 other states Feb. 12.

“Some of that could just be us downloading our preregistered lists and handing it to them and then making appointments,” Avula said in a media briefing Friday. “When we have multiple pharmacy in specific localities, there’s just some organizational work we’ll need to do.”

The state and federal pharmacy systems syncing has been an ongoing battle with the CVS launch, and one intended to ensure the federal programs don’t widen the disparities that have left white Virginians receiving vaccines at 2.2 times the rate of Black residents — or open opportunities for residents to sign up for appointments through multiple avenues.

According to Thibault, Virginia is the only state CVS has tried accommodating with the request to vaccinate people already preregistered.

Vaccine updates

More than 13% of Virginia’s population has been vaccinated with at least one dose, and the state has administered 1.6 million doses. The average of shots given dropped over the weekend, but that’s largely due to the ice storm canceling vaccination clinics statewide.

Roughly 76% of the state’s 2 million available doses have been used. Of the vaccines allotted for first doses, 91% have been administered. For second doses, it’s currently almost 54%

By the numbers

Virginia reported 1,155 new cases on Wednesday, the lowest single-day increase since Nov. 2. This is still higher than numbers seen during the summer COVID surge and most of October.

The state’s total caseload is at 565,270, with 44% of infections recorded in the past two months. Hospitalizations continue to see a sustained decline, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, and the seven-day average of people hospitalized is at 1,693.

On Friday, COVID patient numbers were at 1,843.

While Virginia reported nearly 388 COVID deaths over the weekend for a total of 7,486 people who have died from the virus, the Virginia Department of Health noted on its website that the increase is due to the agency processing death certificates related to the post-holiday surge.

The VDH said date of death is a more accurate snapshot. Virginia hit an all-time on New Year’s Eve, with 63 deaths.

Richmond-area figures

Richmond has had 14,499 cases, 670 hospitalizations and 161 deaths. Chesterfield County has had 23,077 cases, 769 hospitalizations and 246 deaths.

Henrico County has had 20,950 cases, 841 hospitalizations and 390 deaths. Hanover County has had 6,522 cases, 246 hospitalizations and 114 deaths.

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Death penalty abolition legislation passed by both houses of General Assembly

Virginia is just a historic signature away from eliminating the death penalty after sometimes emotional debate in the General Assembly on Monday.

In 22-16 and 57-42 votes, largely along party lines, the Senate and the House, respectively, passed identical death penalty abolition bills backed by Gov. Ralph Northam. The legislation will end centuries of capital punishment in Virginia, with nearly 1,400 executions since 1608.

“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death,” said Northam and Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate in a prepared statement.

Virginia will become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and join 22 other states that do not have capital punishment.

Virginia has executed 113 people in modern times, second only to Texas, since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976.

The identical bills, HB 2263 and SB 1165, were introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. The House and the Senate each passed its own bill earlier, and then on Monday the matching bill from the other chamber. The bills must first be enrolled and then sent to the governor’s desk.

The legislation will take the 15 current types of capital murder — and punishable by death, or life in prison without parole — and make them aggravated murder, punishable by life in prison.

However, in current law and under the new law, a judge, except in the case of the murder of a police officer in the line of duty, can still sentence someone to a sentence less than life — something that rarely has happened.

The Senate on Monday rejected, for the second time, an amendment by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who opposes the death penalty, that would mean that all 15 types of capital murder — not just the murder of a police officer — would require true life sentences.

Stanley argued that he wanted to vote for abolition — as did some other Republicans — if the public could be assured that people convicted of such heinous crimes are never released. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, was the only Republican voting for abolition in the Senate.

Surovell, arguing for passage of the House bill by the Senate, said that while the death penalty involves a relatively small number of people, it will send a strong message that Virginia is leading the world again on justice and human rights.

The debate got somewhat emotional in the House on Monday.

Mullin, his voice breaking at times, urged his colleagues to pass the Senate version of his bill. He said he was recently in Jamestown near the site of Virginia’s first execution: “Our commonwealth, since that time, has expressed a blood lust second to none in this country.”

“There is no separating the death penalty in Virginia from racism. They are inextricably linked. It’s a random, arbitrary and racist process. In fact, it wasn’t even until 1997 that Virginia even executed a white person for killing a Black, and even that’s only happened four times,” Mullin said.

Mullin raised the case of Earl Washington Jr., who was wrongfully convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper. He came within days of execution and later was proved innocent by DNA testing.

“We cannot remove human error from this system,” Mullin said.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House minority leader, said that in the debate on the issue in both houses in recent weeks, the Democrats have failed to express “even a little concern” for the victims of crime.

“Just once, I would love to see the delegate from Newport News or anybody else in the Democratic caucus, express even a tenth of the same emotion that [Mullin] just expressed, some measure, no matter how small, of angst, of regret, of concern not for cold-blooded murderers but for people who’ve been robbed, who have been stolen from, whose homes have been broken into, whose loved ones have been murdered,” Gilbert said.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, said it has been said by some that with this vote, “the eyes of the world are upon us.” He said, “There’s two people watching that have a particular interest because they are the only two Virginians right now on death row.”

The legislation means the two men would serve life in prison without parole and not be executed.

One is Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, who was sentenced to die for the 2005 capital murder of Stanley Reaves, an officer with the Norfolk Police Department. The other is Anthony B. Juniper, 49, who was sentenced to death for the 2004 capital murders of Keshia Stephens; her brother Rueben Harrison III; and two of her daughters, Nykia Stephens, 4, and Shearyia Stephens, 2.

Bell graphically outlined the two men’s crimes, including gunshots to the head. “They’re watching. Oh, my goodness they’re watching. The loud cheering that you’re about to hear from [death row] can metaphorically be heard at the graveside of those five crime victims,” Bell said.

“We have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers do not receive justice, and I hope you’ll vote against the bill,” Bell said.

Mullin responded: “I have spent 14 years of my life as a criminal prosecutor. I have handled cases of murder and dismemberment. ... How dare any member of this body say that I do not care for the victims of crime. And I know that there are people of good will on all sides of the issue, but how dare you?”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, spoke about the slayings of his girlfriend, Alison Parker, a reporter for WDBJ in Roanoke, and cameraman Adam Ward. The two were shot to death during a live broadcast in 2015 by a man who later killed himself.

“Fortunately now I have been able to move forward in my life,” said Hurst, a former anchorperson at the station.

He mentioned Rachel Sutphin, whose father was one of two law enforcement officers slain by William Morva — executed in 2017 — and who favors abolition of the death penalty.

“When the other side says we don’t care about victims, you come for me,” Hurst said. “When the other side says you don’t care about victims, you’re coming for Rachel.”

“I’m tired of the hand-wringing. ... It’s time for Virginia to end the death penalty,” he said.

In the House, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, and Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, were the only two Republicans to join the majority. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who voted earlier in favor of abolition legislation, voted against it Monday.

Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Monday’s votes were “a landmark in the history of Virginia. It is a repudiation of the legacy of 1,390 executions carried out by the commonwealth since 1608.”

“This vote continues the national move away from the death penalty. When the Governor signs the bill into law, Virginia will become the 11th state to abolish the use of executions in the past 15 years and the 23rd state overall,” Stone said.

Rob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and a lawyer for Porter and Juniper on death row, said Monday that the two were aware of what was happening in the legislature but that they declined to comment.

“A direct line can be drawn from Virginia’s modern death penalty back to its history of racist lynchings,” Lee said. “By eliminating the death penalty, governmental, political and moral leaders have taken a long overdue action needed to make Virginia a fairer and more just Commonwealth.”

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House and Senate reach deal on in-person learning mandates

State lawmakers who pressed Gov. Ralph Northam to return children to schools amid the pandemic reached a deal Monday to mandate in-person learning in Virginia.

At issue was achieving consensus about what “in-person” really meant, a term the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, feared some schools might attempt to work around. The bill basically mandates that schools offer in-person instruction five days a week while adhering to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s mitigation strategies.

The House Education Committee approved a draft of SB 1303 with a tighter definition of “in-person” as state health officials announced that five Richmond-area children have Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a potentially deadly syndrome linked to COVID-19. At its mildest, the symptoms can include rash, fever or gastrointestinal problems. At its worst, it can constrict the heart from pumping enough blood.

Dunnavant acknowledged the condition was a potentially “serious consequence” of COVID-19 but did not change her stance, citing research on congregate settings that she said, with mitigation, don’t show a significant spread, especially with young children.

“I think it’s really where we are — is that the preponderance of this science is so overwhelming that thinking people can’t disagree with the assertion that schools have to open,” said Dunnavant, a physician, in an interview. She first introduced the intention alongside Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, signaling bipartisan support.

The legislation must pass the House of Delegates before heading to Northam’s desk. If signed into law, it would take effect July 1.

The debate on whether schools should reopen for in-person learning comes as school divisions are working to get teachers vaccinated and officials face tough choices about how many children to welcome back, and how.

Some opponents of the measure — including Tazewell County School Board member David Woodard — voiced concerns about the state telling local school divisions what to do.

“The constitution of Virginia gives control over local schools to local school boards,” he said to the committee. “One-size-fits-all legislation and rules don’t necessarily work all the time, and this is one place where it will not work. What works in Northern Virginia doesn’t work in Southwest. What works in Southwest doesn’t work in Hampton Roads. ... It’s in the constitution for a reason.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said the legislation is meant to help the state help local leaders.

“I think what we’ve seen is that the state can be effective in providing a baseline here to make sure that we’re doing it well, and I think that’s appropriate in this moment,” he said.

The change Dunnavant offered Monday defines in-person learning as “any form of instructional interaction between teachers and students that occurs in person and in real time.” It also asserts that teachers simply proctoring students while they do virtual instruction in school buildings won’t count. The bill mandates that school boards offer the minimum instructional hours required by the state, a striking change from a substitute proposed earlier by VanValkenburg.

VanValkenburg’s legislation allowed for hybrid instruction, where students alternate between virtual and in-person learning. VanValkenburg supported the change and asked the committee to reject the substitute he drafted alongside the Northam administration.

A Northam spokesperson said the governor supported the legislature’s efforts to address concerns.

“The Governor appreciates these efforts to ensure school re-opening is consistent with health guidelines, respects the constitutional authority of school divisions, and prioritizes the safety of students, teachers, and staff,” said Alena Yarmosky.

The substitute does allow for schools to close if transmission risk becomes high, as defined in Virginia Department of Education guidance. Under most circumstances, school systems would be required to remain open if risk is not considered high. The bill’s sunset would be in 2022.

Some Republicans demanded that the legislation take effect immediately. Dunnavant included that language when she first introduced the bill, but removed it after debate in the Senate.

“Why not legislation to push this forward ASAP? Our kids are suffering; we know it,” said Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton. “As a former educator, the consequences that we’re dealing with right now are astronomical, and if we pass this legislation effective July 1, why not now?”

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who is running for lieutenant governor, motioned to amend the bill to include an emergency clause. VanValkenburg objected, saying it might cost school systems flexibility. The motion failed, by a vote of 13-9.

As of Monday, only two school systems in the state, Richmond and Sussex, are fully remote with no plans to reopen buildings on a wide scale, according to VDOE. On Jan. 16, prior to Northam setting expectations for schools to reopen by March 15, 42 school systems were fully remote.