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Richmond preparing community engagement plans as evaluation of casino resort proposals begins

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A casino resort is proposed to be built on the property opposite the railroad tracks at Movieland theaters in Richmond, Va. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

Seeking to elevate its proposal to build a $517 million casino resort in Richmond, Urban One announced plans Tuesday to partner with several local businesses and give back $30 million in charitable donations and initiatives.

In a news conference next to the Phillip Morris factory where the Black-owned media conglomerate plans to build its One Casino + Resort, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins and Lester Johnson Jr., owner of Mama J’s restaurant and a prospective investor in the project, pitched it as the most community-oriented plan.

Mayor Levar Stoney declined to comment on any of the proposals that were due to the city on Monday, but acknowledged that he wants to select a project that will meet community expectations and create the best value for Richmond. State law allows the city to have a single casino.

“It means more than just [tax] revenue,” Stoney said in a news briefing Tuesday. “We’re talking about community benefits that are going to uplift our community and center around economic justice.”

The development of a casino resort is the city’s best opportunity for economic development following the Richmond City Council’s rejection last year of the $1.5 billion Navy Hill redevelopment project downtown.

Under a state law enacted last year that legalizes casino gambling in Richmond and four other cities, Richmond officially made its request for proposals in December.

Stoney and other city officials said they will soon release the names of all the applicants and their proposed sites after an initial review of the submissions, but declined to say how many the city received.

Four applicants have publicly shared details about their proposals for 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 by Urban One, a Washington media company with radio stations in Richmond, and Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based owner of the 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.

Community members last year demonstrated their strength by successfully lobbying the City Council to reject the Navy Hill plan over concerns about its revenue projections and a special tax district plan to pay for the public-private project.

Administration officials have said the casino project will not include any public funding.

Around the same time last year, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, the first to unveil plans to build a casino in Richmond, met public opposition from residents near its originally proposed site in the Manchester area. The pushback led the tribe to reconsider its original proposal and select a new site.

While a recently created panel that includes two City Council members and seven administration officials will review the proposals and make recommendations to the mayor, the city will also be taking public input in the coming months to help guide its evaluation of the projects.

“We will be looking to hear from the community because that’s the most critical voice in this entire process ... [and] to ensure that we absolutely have an opportunity that benefits the entire city of Richmond,” said Leonard Sledge, the city’s director of economic development.

Sledge said the city will hold a series of online forums and collect feedback through ambassadors from the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building as part of its public engagement strategy. He said additional details about the strategy will be released later this week.

The four companies that have publicly announced their proposals highlighted goals for the inclusion of minority-owned business and outreach to local businesses, universities or communities.

Cordish said its project team includes “three of the area’s most prominent” minority general contractors: Davis Brothers Construction Co., Mark Turner Construction Co. and Canterbury Enterprises. The Bally’s Corp. said a “hallmark” of its proposals is a player rewards program in partnership with local businesses. And the Pamunkey Indian Tribe said it will aim to have 50% of its workforce “come from minority communities” and 90% from the Richmond region.

At its news conference Tuesday, Urban One said it will partner with Mama J’s, Perch, Southern Kitchen, Stella’s, EAT Restaurant Partners and Richmond Restaurant Group for its project.

Johnson, the owner of Mama J’s, said he supports Urban One’s project because of its focus on local business and minority enterprise, and encouraged residents and local government leaders to endorse it.

“I am convinced ... the One project represents a legacy for our community, bringing an unmatched level of inclusiveness, opportunity and pride to the city we love,” he said.

“This is a worthwhile endeavor because it will bring excitement, hope, tax dollars for important city priorities, and a beautiful and fun destination that showcases the best of Richmond.”

The success of the project and whoever is selected could depend on their ability to convince community members how it will benefit them.

Purnell Spears, a resident of South Richmond, said he understands the need for economic development but is skeptical of whether a casino resort is the right answer.

“You can give us a casino to take our money. How about giving us something we can benefit with our money?” he said.

Over anything else, Spears said, the city must replace the aging George Wythe High School and help bring a full-service grocery store somewhere in the U.S. Route 1 corridor.


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