Despite more robust support in terms of advocacy for the project, support for a Richmond casino among the city’s voters actually diminished the second time around. However, the campaign to establish what would be Virginia’s fifth brick-and-mortar casino might not be over.
Voters in Richmond soundly defeated the proposal to build a casino in their city on Tuesday night. That might simply set the stage for a similar referendum in a nearby city on the same issue in the near future.
Richmond voters defy pro-casino lobbying, spending
Heading into Tuesday night, polls suggested that a no vote on the casino question was likely in Richmond. Those polls suggested the second vote on the issue in the city would be a more resounding defeat than no voters delivered in 2021.
Tuesday’s defeat of the casino proposal was also remarkable because of how heavily casino developers and supporters invested in the outcome. Gambling company Churchill Downs and media company Urban One, co-developers of the now-defunct project, spent millions on marketing.
Casino proponents garnered endorsements from local officials and formed agreements with trade unions. They secured statements of support from organizations like the NAACP. After Richmonders went to the polls on Tuesday, though, it was all for naught.
Casino vote sends message to developers
In 2021, the first Richmond casino referendum fell short by about 1,500 votes. According to Em Holter of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the margin of defeat was more than 13,000 votes this second time.
Individually, voters in seven of the city’s nine districts voted against the casino proposal. However, the two that did support the measure were those closest to the casino’s proposed location. Holter reports that citywide, no votes accounted for 58% of the total.
Urban One’s involvement in the casino might have dragged the referendum down. Kate Andrews of Virginia Business documents how people received as racist comments Urban One-owned radio station staff made about casino opponents on the air.
Perhaps most notable for casino developers in Richmond was that turnout on the issue was high. Holter reports that 43% of registered voters in the city weighed in on the matter. Such a response might deter gambling advocates from trying a third time.
This vote could sour casino proponents on Richmond. It’s unlikely they have fully given up on a fifth casino in Virginia, though. At the same time, another governing body in Richmond will have a large role to play in gambling matters outside of the city.
Does casino developers’ attention shift back to Petersburg?
The high voter turnout on Tuesday night had an important factor behind it; every seat in the Virginia legislature was up for grabs. Thus, Richmonders weren’t just going to the polls to decide the casino question but who would represent them in both chambers of the legislature as well.
The results of that election are crucial to the fate of a potential fifth casino in Virginia. In 2020, the legislature authorized that number and designated cities to vote on the matter. Richmond was among them.
For that reason, the state government would have to act again in order to change the venue to another city. Virginia’s legislature took some action toward that end after the first Richmond referendum failed.
Earlier this year, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a measure allowing Petersburg voters to hold their own referendum on a casino. The Cordish Cos. worked with Petersburg leaders on a proposal for a Live!-branded casino.
However, the Virginia Senate defeated the Petersburg bill. Whether Richmond’s second denial will revive the Petersburg debate is unclear. Other cities might vie for their shot. It also may be even harder to get any measure through in Richmond moving forward.
Legislative configuration could work against casino interests
In a way, Richmond could still determine that.
Richmond is also Virginia’s capital city. On Tuesday, voters statewide not only maintained Democratic control of the Virginia Senate but handed control of the Virginia House of Delegates to Democrats as well. The House of Delegates had been under Republican control when it passed the Petersburg referendum authorization.
While not a clear and immediate death knell to casino proponents’ ambitions, Democrat leaders could be more willing to simply accept the second Richmond vote as the final word on the matter. For at least the foreseeable future, Virginia might be home to just four casinos.
At the very least, the people who casino advocates will have to sway in Richmond aren’t the same as they were earlier this year. If they have the same success in the state capitol as they did with voters in the state capital, the prospect of a fifth Virginia casino could languish for quite a while.