The availability of the fifth and, possibly, final Virginia casino license has prompted several lawmakers to file bills this month in hopes of getting the coveted rights to develop what they hope will create an economic windfall for their communities.
Opportunities for that license opened up after voters in Richmond defeated a measure in November that would have approved building a $562 million development in the Virginia capital. They did so in resounding fashion, marking the second time a casino referendum failed there since 2021.
Technically, the Virginia casino law the General Assembly passed in 2020 dedicated the licenses to five communities. Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk were the others. The law also stipulated that voters must approve a ballot measure before any work could move forward, which is what happened in those communities.
When the 2024 legislative session began earlier this month, senators from Fairfax County and Petersburg, a Richmond suburb, filed bills to strip the Richmond language and replace it with wording that grants the right to it to their communities, provided it gets support from local leaders and voters to approve a referendum.
A Senate committee approved their bills last week, but the measure to give Petersburg the license received more yes votes.
There are no legal Virginia online casinos.
NOVA Casino Bill Would Add Sixth License
State Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, filed Senate Bill 675, which would allow a casino to be built in Fairfax County, just outside of Washington, D.C. and near the district he represents. The bill calls for a specific location in Tysons to be the site, a vacant car dealership just outside the Beltway near a Metro Silver Line transit stop.
The amended version of the bill would increase the number of available casino licenses by one to give Petersburg and Northern Virginia both a chance to have one, pending separate referendums in each community. Increasing the number of licenses was a matter of “regional fairness,” Marsden told the Gaming Subcommittee of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee.
“We think it’s important that these things are dealt with in such a way that every region of the commonwealth has a chance to take advantage and contribute to the commonwealth’s coffers,” he said.
Marsden noted that many Northern Virginia residents go to the MGM National Harbor Hotel and Casino in Maryland and that by building one in the Virginia portion of the nation’s capital region, the state would reclaim millions in tax dollars that are lost just across the Potomac River.
Fairfax County is the state’s most populous, and for years, it was able to cover 75% of its public education costs. However, that’s dropped in recent years to 65%, which Marsden said has put a strain on the state. Further, the D.C. suburbs that have been home to numerous government contractors are seeing fewer workers in office buildings due to COVID-19 telecommute policies that are still in place. Eventually, that will lead to more vacancies as leases expire.
The senator added that supporters don’t just want a standalone casino.
“What we’re talking about is a conference center that does not exist in Fairfax County,” he said. “We’re also talking about a hotel. We’re talking about a concert venue and the casino itself.”
While the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce backs the plan, a Fairfax County casino is not universally endorsed in the region. The bill passed the General Laws and Technology Committee by a 10-4 vote, with two no votes coming from Northern Virginia Sens. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, and Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.
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Petersburg Still Eyes Richmond License
Meanwhile, Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, filed Senate Bill 628, which would strip Richmond from the casino law and replace it with her community of 33,000, located 25 miles south of the state’s capital.
Aird told the committee that Petersburg still struggles to deal with high rates of poverty and unemployment, healthcare needs and infrastructure issues. She noted that several of the Virginia communities that already have casinos are reaping economic rewards.
“Petersburg, too, needs a transformative economic development opportunity to generate immediate revenue and provide long-term benefits,” she added.
Petersburg tried to get rights to the fifth license in 2022, a year after the first Richmond referendum failed. Late that year, Cordish Cos. unveiled a $1.4 billion casino resort with local officials’ backing. It’s uncertain if the project, which would create 2,500 construction jobs and 1,500 casino resort jobs, remains on the table.
SB 628, which would not increase the number of licenses, passed the General Laws and Technology Committee by a 12-2 vote last week. Both it and SB 675 have since been referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.