As local opposition to the proposed casino on Arthur Ashe Boulevard grows, a South Richmond civic association on Tuesday endorsed the bid for an Urban One casino in an industrial area off Commerce Road.
Public opinion and community support are among the criteria city officials are evaluating as they work to form a recommendation on which project should go forward to a citywide referendum this November.
Richmond officials say public sentiment alone won’t determine which project they will recommend, but local residents and community leaders who live near the project sites are hoping their public statements and demonstrations will persuade officials to advance or reject one of the development bids.
In a news conference Tuesday in South Richmond, Charles Willis, president of the newly renamed Richmond Highway Neighborhood Civic Association, called on his neighbors and the Richmond community to contact city leaders to support the Urban One project.
The civic association earlier this month voted to ditch its old name after the city renamed Jefferson Davis Highway last year. The civic association represents a few thousand residents and businesses in the corridor from Terminal Avenue to Walmsley Boulevard.
“We have seen firsthand how this project will make this part of Richmond stronger with good jobs and the kind of economic development we have been waiting for for a long time,” Willis said. “This is how we grow our part of the city and bring tourism and new business opportunities to South Richmond.”
Washington-based media company Urban One is partnering with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, owner of the Colonial Downs racetrack and Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, to build a casino resort off Commerce Road on land currently owned by Philip Morris USA.
Urban One is competing with The Cordish Companies, a Maryland-based operation that runs several casinos under the Live! brand. Cordish is seeking to develop a casino resort at the 17-acre Movieland property on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Nearly a dozen neighborhood groups in the Fan District and North Side are opposing the project, but the Scott’s Addition Boulevard Association board of directors last week decided not to fight against the project in a narrow 10-9 vote.
Cordish, however, is likely to see community opposition against its development plans in the coming weeks, as area residents say they hope to keep the pressure on the developer after the city recently struck down another project in Stratford Hills that failed to win support from the surrounding community,
More than 50 people on Monday protested near the Boulevard site holding up colorful “No Casino” signs and rattling cowbells and other noisemakers during the evening rush hour.
Trevor Dickerson, president of the Scott’s Addition Boulevard Association, said the board’s vote is not an endorsement of the project, but takes a “defensive position” of non-opposition.
Dickerson said the association still has many concerns about the project, such as traffic congestion and the competition it will create for local businesses in the area. But association leaders felt it would be better to work with the developer to leverage more support for the growing entertainment district in case the city selects the project for a public referendum in November.
“We want to make sure we’ve got a seat at the table,” he said in an interview.
Dickerson said the company has committed to several requests from the association, including support for the development of a multi-use trail and a $100,000 annual payment to help pay for streetlights, trees and other improvements in the Scott’s Addition area.
Those offers may do little to assuage nearby residents worried about how the project will impact property values, traffic congestion and the quality of life in the area.
Jonathan Marcus, chairman of RVA Coalition of Civic Associations, said 11 neighborhood groups, including the Fan District Association, Fan Area Business Association, Ginter Park Resident Association and Sherwood Park Civic Association, have issued statements against the Cordish project as of Tuesday afternoon.
Marcus said the idea of a casino is “antithetical” to the small business culture that helped transform industrial Scott’s Addition to a popular entertainment district with its breweries, restaurants and recreation venues.
“Casinos historically do not serve the public interest,” he said in an interview. “We’re concerned it’ll be a drain on the area.”
He also said business leaders in the Scott’s Addition district are “naive” if they think the benefits and commitments from the developer will outweigh the negative impact it will have on the community.
Prior to Monday’s protest on the Boulevard, residents in the Stratford Hills area held similar demonstrations for several weeks against the proposed Bally’s casino resort in the northeast quadrant of the Chippenham and Powhite parkways.
City officials last week announced that it was eliminating the proposal from the evaluation process, citing concerns raised by community members and the approvals the project might need from state and federal agencies based for its project site.
Under a new state law allowing casino gambling in five cities, Richmond originally received six casino development proposals earlier this year after requesting project bids in December.
The city did not specify any locations for the project.
State lawmakers in 2019 and 2020 passed legislation allowing Richmond, Bristol, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Danville to permit one casino operator in their respective jurisdictions if approved by the Virginia Lottery Board and a majority of local voters.
Residents in the other four cities last year overwhelmingly approved plans for a casino in their communities. Danville was the only locality to open the process to a competitive bid.
Dickerson said he thinks the Cordish project will likely see the most opposition in the next few weeks as a city evaluation panel is expected to recommend a project and site as one decision next month.
“I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for Cordish,” he said.
Cari Furman, a Cordish spokesperson, said the company is still working with local residents and businesses on refining the project to make it the most desirable.
“We mean what we say when we talk about serving as a true partner to the community,” Furman said. “Our project is the one that brings the highest economic value and community benefits to the City and local residents, and for that reason, we expect that it will ultimately get the greatest support.”
Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, who represents the area around the Movieland project site, last month publicly declared her opposition to the project.
Eighth District Councilwoman Reva Trammell has not endorsed the Urban One project in her district, but has said publicly that most of her constituents are supportive of it.
The City Council will vote in June whether the city will hold a public referendum on a preferred casino operator and project site this November.