The fearmongering flyers about a proposed Richmond casino weren’t necessary. Mayor Levar Stoney is poised to “build it over there” after all.
On Thursday, the city announced that it has narrowed its casino choice down to one: the proposal by Urban One and Peninsula Pacific Entertainment to build ONE Casino + Resort on Walmsley Boulevard in South Richmond.
I’m still not sold on an industrial site near the southernmost tip of the city as a future magnet for tourists, but I will say this: Its isolation made it NIMBY-proof. And the Urban One project would bring jobs, investment and amenities to an area that could use it, as opposed to the relative boomtown of Arthur Ashe Boulevard and Scott’s Addition, which will be just fine without a casino.
Out of the running is a proposal by The Cordish Companies to build its Live! Hotel and Casino at the Movieland site on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
And here, I must admit that my bullishness about that site in an April column was misguided.
For my money, the $600 million casino resort proposed on the Movieland property by The Cordish Companies, a Maryland developer, makes the most sense. It’s a central location in a distinctive neighborhood that places tourists within walking distance of museums, baseball and Scott’s Addition’s craft breweries and dining, I wrote.
But for North Side residents and a Scott’s Addition business community that approached the project with noncommittal wariness, the Cordish casino was too close for comfort.
Even the presentation of Live! seemed off. Their project’s generic glitz was unlikely to be embraced in the heart of a gritty area characterized by repurposed warehouses and industrial chic. The threat it presented to the existing Movieland at Boulevard Square, fashioned from a 19th century locomotive factory, alone was enough to dim popular support.
So Urban One — Richmond voters willing — is the winner. The city’s Resort Casino Evaluation Panel endorsed the ONE Casino + Resort at the proposed site on Walmsley Boulevard in South Richmond — a recommendation supported by the mayor. Stoney will introduce the project to City Council on Monday, the first step in setting up a Nov. 2 referendum on casino gaming in Richmond.
In March, an anonymous flyer opposing the Movieland site seemed to be foisting gaming — and the African American led Urban One proposal — on the largely Black and Latino 8th District. “More traffic. Higher crime. Lower quality of life for us. Tell them to build it over there,” its unsubtle message read.
Stoney, at the time, felt compelled to call out the “derogatory, disrespectful and even blatantly racist rhetoric used by some, not all, in our affluent communities to distance themselves from fellow Richmonders who, because of their skin color, socioeconomic status, they consider less important, less consequential and less worthy of respect.”
As it turns out, that controversy obscured the fact that some residents of South Richmond didn’t terribly mind the casino “over there,” or actually wanted it if the terms were right.
The developers behind ONE Casino + Resort enlisted local grassroots supporters and investors for their project and quelled any opposition that might have been percolating. Urban One moved among Richmond folks with the ease of a company familiar with its market — it operates four radio stations here — and forged strategic alliances.
Cordish, meanwhile, came off as a smooth operator that thought it could buy its way into Richmond. Its slick publicity blitz gave the impression that Live! was a foregone conclusion.
For Stoney and the casino panel to roll the dice with Cordish would have been an invitation to disaster, given the popular and political opposition in the 2nd District. That referendum would have looked like a losing bet. But 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell has been extraordinarily discreet about the Urban One proposal, a quietude that suggests tacit support. Why would a Black mayor shoot down a Black-owned casino in favor of one a predominantly white community opposes? Walmsley Boulevard was clearly the smoother road toward a referendum.
Whether Richmond actually needs a casino is something for other people to debate; consider me agnostic on the matter. But it’s clear that this slice of South Richmond needs this project far more than the Movieland site, an attractive patch of land in an up-and-coming area that will only become more vibrant with a new ballpark and the freed-up space from the demolition of The Diamond.
Stoney did not need to gamble with that site or this referendum. In selecting the Urban One project, the odds are increasingly in his favor.