Richmond voters will decide next week whether to permit a casino in the city.
After the polls close Tuesday night, area residents will know whether a planned casino with a 250-room resort hotel can rise along I-95 next to the Philip Morris factory in South Richmond.
The owners of the casino project — media conglomerate Urban One and Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums operator Peninsula Pacific Entertainment — have spent $1.9 million in campaigning for the project. That’s about $750,000 more than what Mayor Levar Stoney spent in his re-election bid last year.
There haven’t been public polls to gauge the likely outcome, but organized opponents are seeking to pull an upset after raising only a tiny fraction of that amount — about $145,000 — and seeing voters in Danville, Bristol, Norfolk and Portsmouth overwhelmingly pass similar casino referendums last year.
Legacy civil rights groups, business leaders and city and state officials, including Gov. Ralph Northam, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Levar Stoney, the city’s NAACP branch, the Metropolitan Business League and the Richmond Crusade for Voters are advocating for the project, anticipating the 1,500 new jobs and $50 million in annual tax revenue the casino owners say it will create for the city.
“If you want money for your schools and roads, this project this is a mechanism to generate extraordinary sums of money for those city services,” said Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins.
Some politicians, activists and civic association and business leaders, however, are voting and speaking out against the casino, fearing that its negative effects — gambling addiction, individual losses and crime — are not worth the risk.
“Casinos are predatory in nature,” said community activist Chelsea Higgs Wise. “I’m definitely looking at the social costs.”
State law now allows sports betting and slots-like gambling. Under a casino law approved by the General Assembly last year, Richmond and four other localities have also been authorized to permit casinos that include table games such as poker, blackjack and roulette.
Attempting to counter the casino campaign’s advertisements and talking points, several community activists and organizers, including Allan-Charles Chipman and Higgs Wise, last week released a video essay series through a paid promotional article with RVA Mag in opposition to the casino.
Higgs Wise said in an interview that she doesn’t trust city officials to invest the new tax revenue to benefit South Richmond, despite project backers who say the casino would be a boon for the economically depressed Route 1 corridor that currently lacks a grocery store and other vital services such as banks and pharmacies.
“The money the city has now isn’t budgeted properly to meet the needs of our community that’s in poverty,” she said. “I don’t believe we should have faith in them to change that suddenly because we have a casino. I’m worried this money will be used to continue pushing out longtime Richmonders and poor people.”
Vote No Against Richmond Casino, a political action committee led by longtime Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, paid for the promotional article.
State campaign finance reports show that former grocery store magnate Jim Ukrop donated $50,000 to the campaign last month. Goldman, according to the reports, personally funded nearly all of the additional $100,000 the campaign has accumulated. Goldman said no sources paid his company, Goldman Media, to funnel money to the anti-casino campaign.
The speakers in the video series also included three former city council members, Jon Baliles, Viola Baskerville and Parker Agelasto. All three said they were concerned about how the proliferation of gambling and a casino operation in the city could contribute to problem gambling and other social ills.
Eight of the city’s current representatives on the nine-member council have endorsed the project, heralding the new revenue it could create to increase funding for public services and capital projects without any tax breaks, incentives or subsidies.
City Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, who represents the city’s 2nd District, is the only member who has not endorsed the project after voting earlier this year against putting the referendum on the ballot for Tuesday’s election.
Jordan declined an interview last week, saying in an email that she is instead focused on electing Democratic candidates on the ballot.
One of her former political rivals, however, commended her “bravery” in voting against the project earlier this year.
“It’s hard to be the only one who says, ‘I don’t agree with this,’” said Tavarris Spinks, an opponent of the casino project and a Democratic organizer who lost against Jordan in last year’s council elections. “It’s much easier to just go along to get along. So I appreciate that.”
Spinks, an IT professional who previously worked as a bankruptcy specialist for a law firm, said he’s concerned that so few people have spoken publicly against the project until recently.
In a Medium blog post published earlier this week, Spinks cited several research studies highlighting how poor and elderly people who live near casinos are more susceptible to gambling addiction.
According to a 2013 study by the University of Buffalo Research Institute of Addictions that was published in the journal of Behavior Addictions, people in poor neighborhoods like those near the proposed One Casino are twice as likely to experience gambling problems than those in higher income neighborhoods.
“Catastrophic medical debt, divorce and job loss were the biggest factors in whether people filed for bankruptcy,” Spinks said about what he saw in his past career. “Problem gambling was also something I would see. It was rare, but my concern is that it may become a larger part of it.”
When confronted with questions about the potential for problem gambling and its impact on local residents, proponents often pivot to highlighting other aspects of the development, such as the inclusion of 55 acres of green space; 15 restaurants on the site; investments by local Black business owners; a performance venue that will host more than 200 shows annually; and an on-site television and radio studio.
Still, activists say that the casino would remain the primary attraction and encourage gambling.
The casino owners have courted endorsements from major Democratic political leaders, community organizations and business groups.
A few celebrities and national political figures have also endorsed the project, including actor and entertainer Jamie Foxx, who urged Richmond residents to vote for the casino in a video published last week by the casino campaign’s social media accounts.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has also endorsed the project, met with local faith leaders in a private luncheon Friday. One Casino spokesman Mark Hubbard of McGuireWoods Consulting did not allow reporters to attend the event other than to briefly take photos and video without audio.
“I think that [Urban One] has a historic opportunity in a community that has been ignored to develop something that could be an economic engine to help bring revenue and jobs to the city,” Sharpton said in a news conference with Liggins, the company’s CEO, outside the event. “This could be a national template of how we can build and own things.”
Critics of the project have alleged that Urban One has influenced key political leaders through lobbying and more than $100,000 in campaign donations to political leaders, including Stoney; Virginia Black Legislative Caucus Chairman Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico; Richmond City Council members Michael Jones and Ann-Frances Lambert; and House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William.
As the General Assembly last year considered legislation authorizing Richmond and four other localities to pursue casino plans, Liggins pushed lawmakers to prioritize minority ownership in the state casino bill.
Among the organizations that have endorsed the casino are the Richmond NAACP and the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a voter advocacy and outreach group that is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. Both organizations said their members support the project because of its projected financial windfall and the prospect of the city having the only Black-owned casino in the country.
J.J. Minor, president of the Richmond NAACP and son of Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, has also been working for the One campaign, according to election finance records that showed it has paid him $7,500 as of Oct. 20. The campaign also contributed $1,000 to sponsor a Crusade fundraising banquet last month.
Minor said in an interview that he did not participate in the branch’s vote on whether to endorse the casino project. “It was the right thing to do,” he said when asked about whether he worried the appearance of a conflict of interest because of his roles as the branch’s president and a paid organizer for the casino campaign.
Jonathan Davis, president of the Crusade for Voters, said the group’s research committee that interviewed candidates and campaigns for this year’s election had initially recommended that the group not take a position on the casino project. Group members, however, felt strongly enough to request a vote to endorse the project this fall, he said.
“This is an economic development opportunity for the city, for the Black community in particular,” Davis said. “If you look at the development that’s going to take place ... we’re pretty sure it’s going to spur [more] development in South Side.”
Liggins dismissed the notion that his political donations or the campaign hiring Minor and giving money to the Crusade was intended to buy their support. Instead, he said some of that spending shows how Urban One is committed to giving back to the Black community.
He said that’s why Urban One also agreed to an immediate $25.5 million payment to the city and an additional $16 million for local charities, city agencies and Richmond Public Schools over the next decade if the referendum passes.
“We support organizations to support our community. We support politicians that support our community,” he said. “We didn’t create this persona to pitch this project to the city of Richmond. It’s who we’ve been for 42 years.”
Project critics say they are not confident that a casino resort will promote ancillary development surrounding it. Others also questioned whether a Black-owned casino will inherently benefit the city’s Black community.
“A Black-owned casino is not going to erase the harms that a casino will cause,” said Higgs Wise. “It disappoints me that we are using Black capitalism as a way to expedite exploitation here in Richmond.”
Racial tension around the prospect of a casino rose last spring when anonymously distributed flyers around another proposed casino site at the Movieland theater property on Arthur Ashe Boulevard exhorted residents: ”Tell them to build it over there.”
Many believed the message referred to the Urban One project, drawing a swift rebuke from critics, including Stoney, who said it smacked of racism and implied the casino should be built in an area where about 9 of 10 residents are Black or Hispanic. However, the Richmond Highway Neighborhood Civic Association and the McGuire Civic Association, which represent neighborhoods close to the Urban One casino site, endorsed the project.
Other neighborhood groups and civic associations in predominately white neighbors protested casino proposals in their communities. Months later, after the protests against the casino proposals subsided once the city chose the Urban One project, some residents in the Fan District and Stratford Hills area say they still intend to vote against a casino in Richmond.
Jeanne Walls, a Stratford Hills resident who vociferously opposed plans for a casino near her home earlier this year, said she was put off by people describing the protesters as being narrowly opposed to a casino only because it was proposed in their neighborhood.
“All of Richmond is my backyard,” she said. “ I can’t believe people are drinking the Kool-Aid on this.”
Jonathan Marcus, president of the RVA Coalition of Civic Associations and a resident of the Fan District, said many neighborhood groups thought it would be inappropriate to publicly advocate against a casino project away from their communities.
Nonetheless, he said he and many neighbors remain opposed to allowing a casino in Richmond.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a large vote against the casino,” he said. “But I don’t know which side is going to prevail.”
If it passes, Liggins said pre-construction work will begin at the casino resort this spring so it can open by 2024.
In an interview with Richmond BizSense published last week, Liggins said he thinks it is likely that a casino will be built in the counties of Henrico or Chesterfield if Richmond voters reject the casino plan for the city.
Liggins told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday that he does not currently plan to lobby to change the state casino law to make that happen if his bid goes bust.
“I’m focused on making sure that Richmonders see the benefits of this project. Hopefully they go to the polls and vote yes,” he said. “That’s Plan A. I’m not focused on Plan B.”