Richmond City Council approves casino referendum, which heads next to voters
ONE Casino, if referendum passes, would be only Black-owned casino in U.S.
Richmond City Council on Monday voted 8-1 for a casino referendum to appear on the city’s Nov. 2 ballot. If passed by city voters, the proposed $600 million ONE Casino + Resort would be the only casino under Black ownership in the country.
Urban One Inc., which owns and operates 55 radio stations and the TV One cable network, has partnered with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, owner of Colonial Downs Group and the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium franchise. The casino is proposed to be built on 100 acres owned by Altria Group Inc. on the city’s South Side, near Interstate 95, an economically deprived section of the city.
The project includes a sportsbook, 250 hotel rooms, a 3,000-seat theater, 100,000 square feet of gaming space, and 12 bars and restaurants. Last month, a city-appointed advisory panel recommended the casino plan after narrowing the field from six proposals received in January. Urban One has said it would create 1,300 permanent jobs that would pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour, as well as an $25 million upfront payment to the city and a $5.7 billion economic impact over the casino’s first 10 years.
“All we are voting on tonight is to … support the democratic process,” said Councilor Andreas Addison, one of two councilors who served on the advisory panel that examined the plans.
City Councilor Michael Jones, who represents the district next to the one where the casino is proposed, said he was voting “yes” because he too believed the city’s voters should have their voices heard. “Let the citizens of Richmond decide.”
Reva Trammell, who represents the casino site’s district, said she’s heard widespread support from constituents and added that the area needs significant infrastructure and economic improvement. “We need this. We need this.”
City Council heard from several public speakers, some in support and some against the casino. Unlike an earlier casino proposal by The Cordish Cos. in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood, which received significant backlash from neighbors who voiced concerns about traffic and crime, the Urban One plan was more favorable to some of its neighbors.
The one “no” vote was by Councilor Katherine Jordan, who represents the district where Cordish would have built its casino project. The newly elected councilor said earlier this spring that she would oppose that plan, and on Monday said she was “torn” about whether to support the ONE Casino proposal after hearing from many Richmonders on both sides.
During the virtual meeting vote, an angry Trammell called out Jordan, saying that the two had discussed their plans earlier in the process and that Trammell had agreed to vote against the Cordish proposal if it had reached City Council, while adding that Jordan did not keep her word to support Trammell’s vote. “I expected you to keep your word to me,” Trammell said. Jordan did not respond.
Another councilor, Ann Lambert, said she would likely have voted against a casino plan if it were in her district, but she concluded by supporting the plan Monday despite reservations. “Fifteen-hundred jobs is a game changer,” she said, although Urban One said in a statement later that it will create 1,300 jobs.
Mark Hourigan, CEO of Hourigan Construction, called the casino “a terrific catalyst to the South Side,” but also “represents an amazing opportunity for the city — the entire city, not just the South Side.” Other supporters included Virginia Union University President Hakim Lucas and Richmond Region Tourism President and CEO Jack Berry.
However, Suzanne Keller, an epidemiologist and city resident, spoke in opposition, noting that the presence of a casino could cause or intensify gambling problems, especially among vulnerable minority groups. “The house always wins. I think this is morally wrong.”
Others questioned whether a Richmond casino would be quite the economic bonanza for the city argued by supporters since four other Virginia cities are already building resorts approved last year.
In a statement issued immediately after the vote, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins said, “ONE is extremely grateful and proud that Richmond City Council has voted to move forward with a first-class casino and resort in Richmond’s South Side. This project will be funded entirely with private investment and will generate millions of dollars in critically needed new tax revenue that can be used for schools, affordable housing, workforce development, infrastructure and other city priorities.
“This will be a transformational project for the city, attracting additional tourism revenue that will lift up all of Richmond and improve the quality of life for those who call this city home. At the same time, ONE will create 1,300 well-paying jobs with profit-sharing for employees and pathways to successful careers. We will also be true community partners, investing with nonprofits and worthwhile causes across the city.”
Although Mayor Levar Stoney did not have a vote on the matter Monday, he has spoken in favor of the project. Earlier this month, a $20,000 campaign contribution to the mayor’s re-election campaign last October by a group called the Black Opportunity Council came to light.
Greg Cummings, one of the casino’s 50 investors, is listed by the State Corporation Commission as one of the council’s directors, and others connected to the casino project — which had not yet been announced or recommended in October — also contributed to Stoney’s campaign, according to campaign finance reports.
“ONE Casino + Resort is a $562.5 million project that will create 1,300 well-paying jobs with benefits in South Richmond, and every Richmond resident will benefit from the new revenue created by the project,” Stoney said in a statement Monday. “City Council’s vote tonight paves the way for every voting Richmond resident to have their voice heard on this important project.”
The city will now submit the preferred operator and site to the Virginia Lottery Board for pre-certification, the mayor’s office said, and petition the Richmond Circuit Court to hold the Nov. 2 referendum.
Richmond is the last of five Virginia cities voting on whether to allow a commercial casino, after the Virginia General Assembly voted in 2020 to allow five economically challenged cities across Virginia to have one casino per locality if approved by local voters. Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth all passed casino referendums last November by large margins.