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Stoney focusing on community engagement as businesses prepare bids for potential Richmond casino project

Stoney focusing on community engagement as businesses prepare bids for potential Richmond casino project

As plans for a new casino resort in Richmond materialize over the next two months, Mayor Levar Stoney is hoping to avoid missteps that led to the failure of the $1.5 billion Navy Hill downtown project this past year.

The city plans to select a partner and site for a casino by this summer based on proposals due in February. But voters will decide whether to permit the project in a November referendum.

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe publicized plans for a $350 million resort in Manchester earlier this year, but the operator of Colonial Downs Racetrack and Rosie’s Gaming Emporium as well as Maryland-based media conglomerate Urban One are also interested in building a casino in the city.

Whoever the city selects, Stoney, who is about to enter his second term in office, wants to make sure voters will buy in.

“To me this is about growth — not just for the city, but growth as an administration and government. And I believe that we have to take lessons from our last opportunity,” said Stoney, referring to the Navy Hill project in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Thursday.

“The lesson learned from that exercise was that community engagement has to be at the center of what we do when it comes to economic development,” he said. “We want economic development — which to me is economic justice — for all of our residents.”

City residents, according to a preliminary review of a city survey about the casino project conducted earlier this month, ranked jobs with a living wage and tax revenue for schools, housing investment and public infrastructure improvements as the most important benefits a casino could bring.

The answers to the survey are supposed to inform a formal request for proposals for the resort casino project. The city is planning to put out the request later this month.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law allowing for sports betting operations and the construction of a casino in five Virginia cities, subject to approval by voters in each locality.

A recent study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission estimated that the five venues could generate $262 million annually in state tax revenue. The study said gambling on sports could rake in an additional $55 million for the state.

Richmond officials said they are unable to estimate how much local tax revenue the project can generate until they have details from the solicited proposals.

Voters in four of the cities — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth — overwhelmingly supported plans in their respective localities last month.

Survey results presented to a Richmond City Council subcommittee on Thursday included only city residents, who made up about two-thirds of the 3,182 respondents. The preliminary results did not weigh 261 responses submitted in writing.

The city survey also asked respondents to rank what features and elements they would like most from a casino. Most favored sustainable building design, green space, restaurant and stores, new pedestrian infrastructure and easy access to public transit as necessities for the project.

But what’s not apparent from the survey is how potential neighbors generally feel about a casino rising near their homes.

Since the Pamunkey Tribe announced its tentative plans to build in Manchester, residents of the nearby Bellemeade and Oak Grove neighborhoods have voiced concern about the possibility of more crime, traffic congestion and gentrification that could displace longtime Black residents

Louise McQueen and Barbara Starkey-Goode, officers of the respective neighborhood associations, said they didn’t feel the survey was well-rounded, as it only asked respondents to rank or comment on potential economic benefits rather than what they generally think of a casino opening in the city.

“I’m sure a lot of them have no idea where they’re proposing to build it,” Starkey-Goode said of the survey’s respondents. “When you don’t have all the facts, you might think it’s a good idea to have a casino open up.”

McQueen and Starkey-Goode said they aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of a casino in the city. They said commercial areas with fewer residential properties would be better-suited for the project.

Jay Smith, a spokesman for the Pamunkey Tribe, said it is considering alternative sites for its pending proposal.

“It may not be necessarily tied to the Manchester site,” he said.

Stoney said location is a factor city officials will consider when evaluating project proposals later this year.

“There are a number of prospects out there ... there’s a lot of locations being thrown around,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s right by the city.”

The proposed Manchester site is the only one that’s been widely publicized for the project so far. Richmond Bizsense, however, reported last week that an unidentified buyer is eyeing the 17-acre Bowtie Cinemas’ Movieland property off Arthur Ashe Boulevard as a potential site for a casino.

Smith said the Pamunkey Tribe is not the prospective buyer.

Another priority ranked in the city’s survey was the involvement of minority-owned businesses in the project. It came behind living wage, tax revenue and economic mobility in the ranking for potential economic benefits, but Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins said it should not be disregarded.

The Black-owned company owns a 7% share in the new MGM National Harbor casino resort in Maryland and operates several radio stations targeted to Black audiences in Richmond and more than a dozen other markets around the country.

Liggins said Urban One is interested in owning part of a casino in Richmond since it already has a presence here and lobbied for more minority inclusion in the state casino bill.

Urban One operates three radio stations targeted to African American listeners in the Richmond area. It recently promoted the city’s survey on its platforms and an article in the Richmond Free Press, encouraging city residents to consider the project as an opportunity for Black economic empowerment.

“We as a company consider ourselves to be in the ‘Black people’ business, not just media,” he said. “When we see economic development opportunities where our audience will be the primary participant in them ... we try to seek participation in that.”

Liggins said the company is looking at properties and gaming industry companies it could partner with for a bid, but declined to say where or who it’s considering.

Mark Hubbard, a spokesman for Colonial Downs Group, also declined to speak about what properties it is considering for a potential bid.

The company opened Rosie’s Gaming Emporium on Midlothian Turnpike last year and is preparing to open a new gaming center in Dumfries next month. Hubbard said the company is interested in expanding its operations in Richmond.

“I think once we see RFP we’ll have a better sense of what the city is considering,” he said. “We’re looking at all our options.”

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