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Urban One CEO asks Richmond to focus on casino referendum in 2023 instead of fall

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After threatening legal action when state lawmakers passed legislation that undermined his company’s plans to build a casino in Richmond, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins announced Thursday night that he will focus on promoting a casino referendum in 2023 instead of this fall.

Speaking at a community meeting in the city district where national media conglomerate Urban One has sought to build a nearly $600 million casino resort, Liggins said he has asked the city to suspend its plan to hold a second casino referendum this year because of the legal situation and uncertainty about whether it could be litigated and resolved before the election process begins next month.

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Alfred Liggins, CEO of Urban One, speaks during a district meeting at Satellite Restaurant & Lounge Thursday, August 4, 2022. Councilmember Reva M. Trammell called the gathering to talk about bringing a casino to Richmond.

After 51% of Richmond voters rejected the casino plan last year, the Virginia General Assembly in June adopted a budget that included a provision prohibiting Richmond from holding another referendum until 2023, and only after the state completes a study about the potential economic impact a casino located in Petersburg would have there, about a 30-minute drive south of Richmond.

“This has created a legal conflict and a huge cloud of doubt,” Liggins said before an audience of approximately 100 people at the Satellite Restaurant and Lounge on Richmond Highway, about one mile from the proposed casino location at the Philip Morris industrial complex off Interstate 95.

“We don’t think that a protracted legal battle is in the best interest of the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia, and also would probably not get decided in time for us to have early voting in late September,” he said.

In a statement Thursday evening, the city announced it would file a petition to remove the question from the ballot for this year’s election.

“Understanding Urban One’s reason, the city stands ready to move the proposed One Casino and Resort forward in 2023,” the statement reads. “This temporary delay will not deter Urban One or the City of Richmond from working together to ensure a bright future for our residents.”

After last year’s referendum, several state lawmakers and officials from the city of Petersburg pushed to amend the state’s new casino gambling law so that Petersburg residents could decide whether a casino should be built there.

The casino law, originally adopted in 2020, authorized only Richmond, Norfolk, Danville, Bristol and Portsmouth to permit casinos with the approval of local voters. Voters in every locality but Richmond have since approved casino plans in their communities.

While legislative efforts to add Petersburg to the list failed earlier this year, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and other lawmakers sought to block a second Richmond referendum this year through a budget amendment.

Richmond officials said at the same time that they wanted to roll the dice again, often highlighting how $30 million in projected annual tax revenue for the city had been left on the table. Seeking to make the project more appealing to voters in a second vote, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also proposed cutting the city’s real estate tax by 2 cents if the referendum passes.

Urban One and city officials have contended that the budget provision was “unlawful,” as the Richmond City Circuit Court had already granted the city’s request for another ballot referendum prior to the adoption of the state budget.

In a joint statement after the state budget was passed, both Urban One and the city said they would work together to resolve the issue, potentially “through litigation,” to still hold the referendum this year.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said the law is clear “that Richmond cannot hold the referendum this fall.”

“The budget would generally supersede any prior court order, and someone would probably challenge Richmond’s efforts to conduct the referendum, if the city decides to proceed,” Tobias said in an email Thursday. “If there were no court challenge and the referendum passes, a court might nullify it.

Just hours before the meeting Thursday night, Morrissey’s office disclosed that he and Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie, had sent a letter to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin asking him to intervene if the city moves forward with holding another referendum. Both lawmakers’ districts include Petersburg.

Though Morrissey had supported the One Casino and Resort project in Richmond last year, he has since advocated for allowing Petersburg to hold its own referendum.

In the letter to the governor, the two state legislators said they had contacted Keith Balmer, the city’s elections director, to determine whether the city has ordered him to include the referendum question on the election ballots for this year. The letter says they “were not provided a definitive answer,” as Balmer said the city had not told him what to do yet.

“We find this answer unacceptable and shows Richmond’s intent to possibly ignore the law,” the letter to the governor says. “We are respectfully requesting that you direct the Attorney General’s Office to utilize its legal authority to prevent Richmond from placing the above mentioned referendum on the November, 2022, ballot.”

Balmer told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an interview Wednesday morning that he had asked city officials to let him know within the next three weeks, as he must soon print the ballots so that the city’s office of elections can be ready to send out mail-in ballots and begin early in-person voting on Sept. 23, in accordance with state election law.

In an interview Wednesday, before he and Taylor sent the letter to the governor, Morrissey said city leaders have been making a mistake in continuing to promote the idea that another referendum could be held this fall.

“I don’t know what to say. ... They’re misleading their constituents,” he said. “It shows complete and utter disregard for the laws of the commonwealth.”

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