Petersburg casino bill moves to Senate committee
Measure would prevent second Richmond referendum
A Virginia State Senate bill that would allow Petersburg residents to vote on allowing a casino in their city is still in play, following a 7-2 vote by the Senate gaming subcommittee Thursday. The bill will progress to a General Laws and Technology committee vote Wednesday.
The bill from Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, adds Petersburg to the list of cities eligible to host a casino in the state, and it effectively prevents Richmond from holding a second casino referendum vote this fall, following a Richmond casino referendum’s 2021 defeat. In an interview with Virginia Business in November 2022, Morrissey said a proposed Petersburg casino operated by Maryland-based The Cordish Cos. could bring up to 1,800 jobs to the city, as well as multiuse development of the surrounding 90 acres. According to news reports, the project would involve $1.4 billion in investments over the next 15 years.
Speaking Thursday evening, Morrissey, whose district includes Petersburg, promised music performers like Bruce Springsteen, Snoop Dogg and Carrie Underwood would play the Petersburg casino, which he said would create 1,700 jobs with an average salary of $60,000 in the first phase of the project, including the casino, a hotel and parking garage. He predicted the casino would ultimately create 10,000 jobs, both direct and indirect hires, within a decade of its completion.
Although the Petersburg City Council entered into an agreement with Cordish to develop a casino, Petersburg residents would still need to vote in favor of the referendum for the casino to be built, according to state law, and Morrissey’s bill must pass the General Assembly and be signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin for Petersburg to be able to place a referendum on ballots this fall. When the state legalized commercial casinos in 2020, it limited the options for casinos to one facility apiece in five economically disadvantaged cities — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond.
Cordish, which operates Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, Florida, and developed and operates Live! Casino & Hotel resorts in Maryland and Pennsylvania, has said it is not interested in building a casino in Petersburg if Richmond gets a green light this fall from voters to build a casino.
Petersburg city officials spoke in favor of the bill. “We just believe the time is now,” said City Manager John “March” Altman Jr., for what he described as a “once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity.”
Cordish’s chief operating officer, Zed Smith, said his company’s officers “are urbanists at heart. Petersburg has struggled for many, many years. This is an opportunity. It gives the citizens of Petersburg the opportunity to move the needle in their own city.”
However, proponents of a Richmond casino, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, oppose Morrissey’s bill because it would prohibit Richmond from holding a second local referendum on the same question “until the other eligible host city” — Petersburg — “has had a reasonable opportunity.”
Four Richmond City Council members and the city’s economic development director, Leonard Sledge, spoke against the bill. Most passionately opposed was council member Reva Trammell, who represents the South Side district where the proposed $565 million ONE Casino + Resort was to be built if its November 2021 referendum had passed.
Trammell said that her district is “struggling. Sen. Morrissey should know that. … I represent mostly brown and Black [people] in my district. … I’m out there taking them food and clothes. We don’t have internet in our house. We don’t have computers. We can’t afford them. What do we do? How do we survive? How do we send our children to school when they don’t have shoes to put on their feet? It breaks my heart. I’m just asking you please, please, give us one more chance.”
A few other speakers opposed the bill for other reasons, including Petersburg resident Lafayette Jefferson, a local NAACP leader who Morrissey had sharp words with last year in an incident at the state Capitol. Morrissey has admitted saying “I’ll rip your heart out of your chest” to Jefferson during an argument.
Jefferson said Thursday that Morrissey’s promise of an average $60,000 salary was “manipulation,” because it didn’t take into account taxes and other deductions. “The take-home [money] will be a lot less.” He also said that Petersburg’s process in choosing Cordish was not transparent, because there was not a public request for proposals. Instead, the city hired a third-party consultant to vet seven companies. Morrissey said later that the process is allowed under current state law, and in Bristol, Portsmouth and Norfolk, city council members chose their casino operators without public input.
Voters in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth passed casino referendums by wide margins in 2020. Three permanent casinos are now under construction, and Rivers Casino Portsmouth, the state’s first permanent casino, opened Jan. 23.