More than 100 people gathered near the site of a proposed $650 million development off Forest Hill Avenue on Tuesday in the first organized demonstration against a casino in Richmond.
Residents of Stratford Hills and other neighborhoods nearby waved homemade and mass-produced signs that read “Don’t bet on it! Say no to proposed casino” and “No Casino. Keep Richmond beautiful.”
The din of rush hour traffic was bolstered by motorists honking their horns in approval and cheers from the demonstrators who hope their message will reach city leaders and area residents who may decide this fall whether the city will permit a casino.
“The community decided we need to make a little noise because we know Bally’s is a big company. We felt we needed to let them know it’s not a welcome site,” said Karen Barry, a Stratford Hills resident who helped organize the protest. “We needed to be heard.”
A consulting firm the city hired estimates that a casino resort could generate $30 million in annual tax revenue and thousands of new jobs, but the proposals have led to debate over the negative impact it could have on the city and its neighborhoods.
The Bally’s project is one of three casino development plans the city is considering after the recent passage of a new state law allowing casinos in Richmond and four other localities if approved by local voters.
Residents in the other four cities — Bristol, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Danville — approved plans for casinos in their respective localities last year. Richmond is planning to hold a referendum in November after it selects a preferred site and operator in the next month or two.
In the communities near where Bally’s plans to build a resort on 61 acres in the northeast quadrant of the Powhite and Chippenham parkways, residents say it will lead to traffic congestion, criminal activity, lower property values and the destruction of wetlands and wildlife habitats.
Several people also mentioned the possibility that graves of freed black slaves and their descendants who lived there over a century ago could be disturbed.
Michael Monty, a Bally’s senior project manager, said the company has not seen any “valid sources” indicating the presence of graves in the project site, but would be willing to look into the issue further.
He also noted that the company recently introduced road plans that would allow patrons to access or leave its casino resort from Jahnke Road and the Chippenham, Powhite and Boulders parkways to avoid congestion on Forest Hill Avenue.
“We are absolutely committed to being a good neighbor to the community that will host our Bally’s Richmond project and look forward to demonstrating to community leaders, residents and business owners that Bally’s is for RVA,” he said in an email.
The company says it expects the resort casino will create more than 2,000 permanent jobs and attract 3.7 million visitors each year, generating $5.3 billion in economic value over 10 years.
But several area residents who attended the protest Tuesday said they were unimpressed with Bally’s presentation in an online community meeting last week and remain opposed to the project.
“We don’t need it in this neighborhood,” sad Patrick Williams, a resident of Westover Hills. “Why does it have to be there? Is this the best the city can do?
Richmond received six proposals earlier this year, but is considering only two other projects after a panel of administrators and two City Council members recently tossed out three they deemed inadequate.
Urban One, a Washington media company with radio stations in Richmond, is teaming with the owners of the Colonial Downs racetrack and Rosie’s gaming emporiums on plans for a $517 million casino resort on property currently owned by Philip Morris USA at Commerce Road and Walmsley Boulevard.
The Cordish Companies, a Maryland-based developer that operates several casinos across the country, has proposed a $600 million casino on the 17-acre Movieland property in the Greater Scott’s Addition area.
An evaluation panel will recommend a site and operator for the project in the next few weeks. The City Council will then vote in May or June whether to hold a local referendum on one of the three projects.
People interviewed at the protest Tuesday were mixed about whether they would vote for a casino in the city if one of the other two sites are selected.
While no council members have publicly announced opposition to a casino, two school board members, Stephanie Rizzi and Kenya Gibson, have said they would vote against it in the public referendum.
Those hoping to leave feedback with the city and find more information about the development proposals may visit www.rva.gov/economic-development/resort-casino.