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Richmond City Council votes to hold November referendum on Urban One casino project in South Side

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The Richmond City Council voted Monday to hold a November referendum that will determine whether the city will permit a casino to be built.

Four months after the city received six development proposals for casino resorts, the City Council concurred with Mayor Levar Stoney’s recommendation that the city should partner with Washington media conglomerate Urban One on its $560 million casino proposal for South Richmond.

If local voters approve the ballot measure this fall, a casino with a 250-room luxury resort hotel would be allowed to rise along Interstate 95 near the intersection of Commerce Road and Walmsley Boulevard on property currently owned by Philip Morris USA.

Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, who represents the city’s 2nd District, was the only council member to vote against holding the referendum.

City officials and supporters of the project say the casino resort would be a jackpot, touting the more than 1,000 jobs and approximately $30 million in annual tax revenue anticipated by the developer and city officials.

In a public hearing before the vote, Greta Harris, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Better Housing Coalition, said she supports the project because of the additional community benefits under negotiation, such as direct payments to the city’s school division; partnerships with local community groups; and a $25 million upfront payment to the city if voters approve the project.

“Some folks have been limiting this opportunity as a yes-or-no vote for a casino,” Harris said. “I think it’s so much broader than that.”

Several public speakers lobbied against the project, saying that casinos are predatory and would cause more harm than good.

Some of the critics included representatives from progressive activist groups and former political candidates, evincing a burgeoning “no” campaign for the upcoming referendum.

“Bringing a casino to Richmond is yet another economic development scam that will extract wealth from communities that can least support it,” said Quinton Robbins, director of operations for the progressive advocacy group Richmond for All. “Casinos are a tax on the poor. It is therefore shameful to call this project economic justice.”

The city is pursuing the project under a new state law that allows Richmond to permit a casino if voters approve it.

The law also allowed Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Bristol to permit casinos. Voters in each city last fall approved casino development plans in their respective communities.

Richmond received six casino proposals in February, two months after the city issued a solicitation for the project bids.

A few council members said they were initially hesitant about allowing a casino in the city, noting the public opposition to proposed sites in the Arthur Ashe Boulevard and the Forest Hill Avenue corridors.

Unlike those projects, the Urban One project saw relatively meager support from neighborhood groups near its project site. Several officials also noted that the project would not include any incentives, tax abatement or subsidies from the city.

Jordan said she has seen opposition to a casino waver in her district after the city eliminated the project on Arthur Ashe Boulevard from consideration, but that she still felt unsure about it.

“I just feel very conflicted at this moment because my guiding principles were ... vote with your constituents and your conscience,” she said. “I don’t support gaming.”

Jordan’s vote drew an immediate rebuke from Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who represents the area where the Urban One project would be located.

“I gave you my word — because I know so many people in the 2nd [District] — that I would not go against you,” she said. “You told me you would support me.”

Councilman Andreas Addison, one of the two council members who was on the city’s project evaluation panel, said he thinks the Urban One project could be a catalyst for redevelopment and growth in an area of the city that needs it.

“This is a key anchor to get things moving in that direction,” the 1st District representative said. “We need something to get us moving forward.”


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