There’s a battle going on for the next Virginia casino. The cities of Richmond and Petersburg, separated by a roughly 20-mile stretch of freeway, are both pushing for a casino.
But only one of them can win in the short-term, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wants lawmakers to know it’s his city that should get the casino.
Earlier this month, Stoney sent a letter to eight lawmakers asking them to allow a casino vote in Richmond in 2023. He wrote:
“I want to be explicitly clear: I adamantly opposed any legislation that constricts the rights of Richmond to have a resort casino. My Richmond City Council colleagues also stand firm in preserving and defending Richmond’s authority to hold a resort casino referendum in 2023.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney makes a clear stance on Virginia casino
Stoney’s move is the result of a somewhat complex legislative process. In 2019, lawmakers legalized casino gaming in five Virginia cities:
However, the legalization came with a catch: Voters in each city had to approve a casino via a referendum, and lawmakers had to allow the referendum. 51% of Richmond voters rejected a casino in a 2021 vote.
Sen. Joe Morrisey, whose constituents include Petersburg residents, blocked a 2022 vote.
The casino’s developer, Urban ONE, wanted to try again in 2023. It could likely sway voters enough to get their approval, the thinking went.
Stoney’s letter was somewhat of a surprise. In the past, the mayor said he respected the will of the people. That presumably meant that he supported the city’s “no” vote on a casino. However, his recent letter seems to backtrack on that.
In a vacuum, Richmond’s back-and-forth seems like the typical narrative of competing interests. Residents are hesitant to allow a massive development. Developers want to build and bring economic benefits to the city.
However, Richmond’s casino tussle isn’t happening in a vacuum.
Petersburg’s push includes a $1.4 billion proposed casino project
Sen. Morrisey, who blocked a second referendum, has submitted a bill that would make Petersburg the state’s sixth casino city.
Meanwhile, Cordish Companies has proposed a $1.4 billion casino in Petersburg. The project includes more than 670,000 square feet of casino and resort space, as well as more than half a million square feet of retail, dining, and entertainment space.
Why does this matter to Richmond? There are several reasons. First, a Petersburg casino of the scale that Cordish wants would inevitably cut into the revenue of a Richmond casino.
Second, if Gov. Glenn Youngkin approves Morrisey’s bill, Richmond wouldn’t be allowed to have a second casino vote until Petersburg got its first vote. The bill includes the following language:
“The Department (of Taxation) shall not grant any initial license to operate a gaming operation in an eligible host city until a referendum on the question of whether casino gaming shall be permitted in such city is approved by the voters of such city.”
Voting first would give Petersburg a massive advantage in the race for a casino.
What’s ahead for the Richmond-Petersburg casino debate?
The current legislative session will likely determine the future of casinos in Richmond and Petersburg.
Morrisey’s push for a sixth casino city might just get support. After all, Richmond’s voters said they didn’t want a casino in their city. Morrisey is likely banking on the fact that Petersburg voters would happily approve a casino.
If the bill passes, things could get ugly in Richmond. It’s possible that Urban ONE would withdraw its casino plans. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new casino when a $1.4 billion casino will open 20 miles away doesn’t make a lot of financial sense.
Any future casino plans would be a hard sell even if voters approved a casino referendum. The competition from Petersburg (assuming voters approve a casino) looms large.
For Stoney, the outcome of the casino battle won’t affect his tenure as the city’s leader. He was re-elected once, which is the limit for Richmond’s mayor.