City of Richmond officials voiced disappointment on Thursday after the Virginia General Assembly amended and passed a state budget Wednesday that will “deliberately harm” the city by denying a referendum vote this year on a proposed casino that would provide “economic opportunities for its residents.”
The city had planned to hold a referendum vote in November for a proposed $565-million project named ONE Casino & Resort. City officials say the project would bring more than 1,500 new jobs to the city paying a minimum of $15 an hour and provide outstanding community benefits and a compensation package to the City of Richmond in terms of new general fund revenue.
But language added to the recently passed state budget prevents Richmond from holding another local referendum on casino gaming until November 2023.
“Our City Council voted 8-1, and the Circuit Court has ordered that Richmond voters should have the opportunity to be heard on this issue this November,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in a statement on Thursday. This would be the second attempt by Richmond to get a casino for the city after voters rejected the project last year.
“We are still assessing our legal options but remain firm in our belief that the citizens of Richmond should not be disenfranchised just months before they would have the opportunity to vote,” Stoney said.
The casino project would be managed by Maryland-based Urban One. Urban One is a media company geared toward Black America and the African-American community.
“Urban ONE, with our partners at the City of Richmond, remain committed to a November 2022 referendum in support of ONE Resort + Casino,” the company said in a joint statement with the City of Richmond.
Court Order Grants 2nd Referendum
After the first casino vote was narrowly defeated in 2021, a Richmond City Circuit Court judge signed an order in March 2022 granting a second referendum this November for the casino.
With a court order in place that is non-appealable, Richmond's Director of Economic Development, Leonard Sledge, told Richmond City Council members on May 9 there could very well be preventive language in the Virginia General Assembly budget that seeks to restrict the city's ability to hold a November referendum.
“But we are of the mindset that with the court order that we have being final and non-appealable, the Richmond voters will still have the opportunity in November and with the early voting period to cast their ballot to make a decision as to whether or not they would like to have a resort casino operating in the City of Richmond,” Sledge said.
Urban One Responds
“The proposed budget language would undermine the authority of both the judicial and executive branches,” Urban One said on Thursday. “This retroactive budget language seeks to unconstitutionally invalidate a final Court Order and inappropriately constrain the Virginia Lottery in fulfilling its regulatory authority in the same manner as it has done for other casinos.” Four casinos are already approved in Virginia for the cities Danville, Portsmouth, Bristol and Norfolk.
“We will partner with the City of Richmond, including through litigation, to ensure that the people of Richmond have the final say on what happens in their community and that the rule of law is protected,” Urban One said.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin will now review the budget and has seven days to make recommendations. As part of gambling expansion in the state, Virginia sports betting launched on Jan. 21, 2021, and the commonwealth has exceeded $4 billion in total wagering handle since the market went live.
Virginia online casinos have not been legalized as part of the gambling expansion in the state.
Could the Casino End Up in Petersburg?
An amendment included in the budget package going to the governor would provide Petersburg a possible chance to roll the dice on a casino.
Under the amendment, funds would be dedicated towards a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study to take a closer look at the revenue a casino would generate in Petersburg. Delaying Richmond's second referendum vote, as stated in the state budget, would give Petersburg time to perform the JLARC study.
On Thursday, Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham and Sen. Joe Morrissey, who represents the 16th District, held a joint press conference to praise the budget language.
“Next year, when we have the JLARC study done, we will then introduce legislation that Petersburg gets the casino,” Morrissey said during the news conference. “I would say, respectfully, to the leaders in Richmond that it is time for you to move on.”
The City of Richmond, together with Urban One, are ready to look into litigation and legal options to make sure the casino ends up in the state capitol.
“If the mayor wants to fight in court, fine,” Morrissey said. “Wouldn’t be the first time he’s wasted City of Richmond funds to fight a losing battle. We’re going to win that if it goes to court.”