This Richmond business owner wants to improve Southside community following rejection of casino

Posted at 7:08 PM, Nov 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-08 19:08:24-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- It was an unpleasant surprise for Damon Harris to find a pro-casino banner hanging on his property in South Richmond. He hadn't visited the abandoned building in two weeks before meeting CBS 6 there on Wednesday and said it had been put up without his permission.

“It's bothersome, especially since we’ve been working really hard to try to add investments to fix this, and the casino wasn’t going to do it," Harris said as he tore the sign down and stomped on it.

Harris hopes to turn the abandoned building into a "legacy center" where Southside residents can get resources and information on housing stability and building businesses.

Harris owns the real estate firm Teal House Company, which he said focuses on fighting displacement and the negative impacts of gentrification. Much of his work is targeted in Richmond's Southside neighborhoods, an area he said has seen intentional disinvestment over the decades.

“I think the Southside needs to do one thing: Focus on the people, have the conversation with the people, and invest in the people," Harris said. "You start with stability, and then you add the infrastructure around them. There have been no infrastructure changes in this community."

Out-of-state companies Urban One and Churchill Downs promised to bring economic opportunity to the Southside, including 1,300 new jobs, with their $562 proposal to build a casino and resort right off I-95.

A majority of Southside voters in the eighth and ninth districts, located near the site of the proposed project, voted to approve the casino. However, more than 60% of the city as a whole voted to reject the casino, even as the pro-casino campaign spent $10 million trying to convince Richmonders to vote "yes" on the 2023 referendum.

“If we could have spent the money into the people the same way we spent to market to the people, then we would have created jobs," Harris said. "We could have created new homeowners. We could have created rent stability."

Harris said what South Richmond really needs is affordable housing and stable communities, not a casino.

“City leaders need to just embrace the people beyond agendas, beyond donors, beyond shiny projects and realize that there are people out here every day that, while they’re doing shiny projects, are getting dressed to go to eviction court," Harris said.

Delegate-elect and Richmond City Council President Mike Jones, who represents parts of Southside, said with the casino proposal defeated again, leaders still have to figure out how to tackle the challenges of South Richmond.

“We have to find economic development opportunities that fit into our neighborhoods. We have food deserts, no grocery stores where we can get fresh fruits and vegetables all throughout Southside. We don't have a lot of restaurants and different things of that nature. People still don't have jobs," Jones said. "We've got to look at and focus on what's next. So, we don't have time to lament and cry over what's going on. The people have spoken."

Jones said the city recently committed $100 million in affordable housing over the next five years but said addressing his district's problems needs partnership from the business community.

"We've got to continue to be creative. We have to continue to look for commitment from communities and businesses from outside of the area to come in and help us, because we know we can't tax our way out of this," Jones said.

Tuesday night following the election results, Mayor Levar Stoney said he was disappointed in the outcome.

The mayor had previously tied millions of new funding in childcare centers and programming to gaming tax revenue from the casino, if approved. When asked if the city would still be able to dedicate money to childcare, the mayor said he would "explore under every rock, under every cushion."

"We can't hope, dream, and wish revenue into the coffers of the City of Richmond. Projects have to happen in order to create revenue. I'm proud that we have been able to expand the tax base in this city, and that's exactly what the casino and resort would have done. It takes revenue to actually solve problems in this city. For those who think it will take prayers and dreams and wishes, they're just wrong," Stoney said.

He continued, "We were lucky enough to have someone in Churchill Downs and Urban one make an investment. They voluntarily wanted to make an investment in Southside."

In an audio clip posted by the 'No Means No Casino' campaign before the election, Urban One founder Cathy Hughes was heard on a radio show saying she "wasted" $10 million trying to establish a casino in Richmond.

"Such a waste. I am so mad at this opposition. You know how much good I could have done with $10 million? I had to pay the lawyers, and accountants, and lobbyists, and make contributions to everybody I thought I could influence," Hughes said.

Harris said he believed the referendum "tore the city down the middle."

Following the casino vote, he's hosting a community conversation at Ellwood Thompson's Thursday at 6 p.m. about "how to live in Richmond with intentionality and purpose" and to "pledge together, whether it's through our work, whether through our money so that we can invest in ourselves versus waiting for outside entities that will divide us at the voting booth."

"Richmond has incredible people, incredible talent, people that love the city. Richmond has the ability to do whatever it wants when it wants," he said.

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