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Public support shifting to one project in Richmond casino sweepstakes
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Public support shifting to one project in Richmond casino sweepstakes

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Gov. Northam last year signed a law allowing for sports betting operations and the construction of a casino in five Virginia cities.

The competition for the city’s single casino license is heating up.

With time running out for the three companies pursuing a casino resort in Richmond, project backers and residents across the city are continuing to pitch their support or opposition to the projects.

As a city evaluation panel is expected to select a preferred project next month, followed by a City Council vote in June on whether to hold a referendum on the project in November, public favor is beginning to coalesce behind one of the projects and against the other two.

In a letter sent Thursday to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the evaluation panel reviewing the three project proposals, Prudence Justis, president of the Ginter Park Residents Association, said 94% of respondents to a recent neighborhood survey opposed a casino at the Movieland property.

“Because so many of our residents feel strongly that the presence of a large casino-resort so close to our neighborhood would be contrary to the interest of the neighborhood, the Board of Directors has taken the further step of formally opposing this site as well,” the letter states.

In a statement responding to the association’s opposition to the project, Cordish spokeswoman Cari Furman said the project is expected to generate the most tax revenue. She also said the company, in response to public feedback, is exploring the option of maintaining a movie theater in its new development.

Meanwhile, residents from the Stratford Hills area are continuing public protests against the proposed Bally’s casino near the Chippenham and Powhite parkways, while helping promote supporters of the Urban One casino resort project in an industrial area on the property off Commerce Road currently owned by Philip Morris USA.

While Cordish and Bally’s face public resistance in the communities where they plan to build, 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell said her constituents are overwhelmingly supportive of the One project.

“The emails, the phone calls and texts; they’re all saying they want it. They want the jobs and to keep real estate taxes down. The main thing they’re also saying is that it’s not in a neighborhood,” she said in an interview at an event the company held Thursday.

Rodney Hall, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the district and attended Thursday’s event, said there have not been public protests or organized opposition to the One project.

“We see no problem. There are no residents out here saying they don’t want it,” he said. “We need the city support so we can make it happen.”

While Trammell said she’s still listening to constituents and has not endorsed the project, her comments are a far cry from the objections two other council members have raised about the projects proposed in their districts.

The Cordish project is in the city’s 2nd District. The Bally’s project is in the 4th District. Council members Katherine Jordan and Kristen Larson have both issued statements opposing the projects in their respective districts.

No council members have publicly said they are opposed to a casino, but three School Board members — Stephanie Rizzi, Kenya Gibson and Jonathan Young — have said they do not support a casino in the city.

Richmond initially received six casino development proposals earlier this year under a new state law allowing it and four other localities to permit them if approved by local voters in a public referendum.

Each locality — Richmond, Danville, Bristol, Portsmouth and Norfolk — is permitted to allow just one casino resort. Richmond requested the development proposals in December, about a month after voters in the other four localities overwhelmingly approved plans for casinos in their communities.

Richmond officials cut three of the proposals it received last month after the city’s evaluation panel deemed them inadequate.

At the event Urban One held Thursday, CEO Alfred Liggins announced the project will now include 250 hotel rooms instead of the 150 it initially proposed. Bally’s has proposed to build a 250-room hotel, while Cordish’s plans include 300 boutique hotel rooms.

While the One project is the least controversial thus far, it offers the least value with its $517 million plan. The Bally’s project is valued at $650 million. The Cordish plan is estimated to be worth $600 million.

Liggins said his company is aiming to add more value to its project and make its bid more competitive.

“The city didn’t ask us to do anything specific, but we heard feedback about our proposal in comparison,” he said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Thursday. “As opposed to saying, ‘We’ll build more as demand increases,’ we decided to come out and say we’ll commit to building a similar-sized hotel.”

Bally’s also sought to make its project more attractive this week, announcing Friday that it will allow all Richmond residents an opportunity to buy shares in its local project under a partnership with Richmond entrepreneur David Walton.

Residents of the Stratford Hills area, however, continued to put pressure on the company’s plans.

In a news conference Friday organized by residents from the area, two former directors from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and former James River Park System Manager Ralph White spoke out against the Bally’s project.

“It’s the wrong place for any kind of development. It’s wetlands,” White said. “I personally am not a supporter of casinos in any place, but if it’s going to happen, put them in a place where they won’t do much damage, will hopefully do some help, and, most importantly, where people support it.”

Later Friday, several residents from the Stratford Hills area met with supporters of the One project to promote it.

Anonymous flyers distributed around the city several weeks ago in opposition to the Cordish casino project on Arthur Ashe Boulevard disturbed residents. The flyer said a casino in Greater Scott’s Addition would lower the quality of life, but suggested that people should tell city officials to “build it over there.”

The flyers did not specify a location, but several local leaders and residents, including the mayor, condemned the flyer and other comments about the casino selection process as racist.

The 8th District, where Urban One’s project would be located, is almost 70% Black and 15% Hispanic, according to the most recent data shared on the Richmond government website. The same district-level data for the other two project sites indicate that they are majority-white.

Brooke Betts, who lives near the proposed Bally’s project off Forest Hill Avenue, said she feels that people should still consider whether residents in other districts are supportive of a casino in their communities.

“I think what we really need is to just listen to each other,” she said. “Just because we don’t think it’s a good thing in our neighborhood doesn’t mean that other people think the same way about another location.”

The city’s evaluation panel is expected to decide on a recommended operator and site as a single decision within the next month.

The City Council will then vote in June to decide whether to hold a public referendum to permit the project.

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