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Why city council's decision about potential Petersburg casino is sparking criticism

Proposed Casino in Petersburg, Virginia
Posted at 6:44 PM, May 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-01 18:55:57-04

PETERSBURG, Va. -- When talking with a few people enjoying a sunny Wednesday in historic downtown Petersburg about how closely they are following the potential resort/casino development in the city, most had the view of Steve Jackson and Kela Brodniak.

Both live in the city and said they are not following the ins and outs that closely. Both also feel the casino would be a good thing for Petersburg.

Proposed Casino in Petersburg, Virginia
Kela Brodniak

“I think it will be a good thing here," Brodniak said. "Like half an ear open when I hear about things. I heard about things when it was first announced and approved and kind of every so often since.”

"No not really, but I think it’s a good thing," said Jackson about whether he's been engaged in the process. "I think it’ll bring a lot of money here to Petersburg, seems like Petersburg's been broke for the longest.”

 Steve Jackson
Steve Jackson

Others told our crews off-camera they were concerned about a casino coming the to city. That debate is set to play out later this year,when voters in the city will have a final say on whether the project moves forward.

Petersburg City Council once again met in closed session about the casino project Wednesday night, one week after another closed-door meeting where they picked Cordish Companies as the preferred operator if voters approve of the project in the fall.

Proposed Casino in Petersburg, Virginia
Proposed Casino in Petersburg, Virginia

Their vote to cancel an open bidding process and select Corish following a closed door meeting received plenty of criticism from open government watchdogs and even some state legislators.

In an interview with CBS 6 earlier this week, Petersburg councilor W. Howard Myers defended the council's process, saying they have been vetting potential plans since 2022 when the prospects of a casino in the city were first pursued by city and state leaders.

"We wanted a destination," Myers said. “We’ve seen all of what is provided, and we have discussed these matters on several occasions since 2022. I can’t see a better development than what is being offered with respect to Cordish.”

Proposed Casino in Petersburg, Virginia
State Senator Laschrecse Aird

State Senator Laschrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) said the selection process was "deeply concerning" in a statement following the April 24th vote.

"The City’s actions demonstrate the ongoing struggle within the City’s governance in the pursuit of what the citizens of Petersburg truly deserve, which is an economic development project that they have a say in and truly benefits all citizens," she said.

The labor union UNITE HERE announced Wednesday it plans to file an open records lawsuit against the city based on how the process played out.

The messiness goes even deeper. According to detailed reporting by the Virginia Mercury, the local UNITE HERE chapter already had labor agreements in place with other potential operators. The political action committee for the labor union donated more than $800,000 to Aird's Senate election committee, according to records via the Virginia Public Access Project.

"No labor group or organization has forced my thoughts on this position, this is a core value that I have held my entire life," Aird's previous statement read.

Both a Petersburg spokesperson and Aird's office declined to comment further for this report.

Possible Petersburg Casino

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Barb Rudoph is the co-founder of Clean Sweep Petersburg, an online forum focused on government accountability and transparency. She said the way the process has played out thus far opens up the question of whether city leaders can get the casino project to the finish line.

"It’s being handled in a way that I think has created a lot of conflict that were greater than what they had before," Rudolph said. "They haven’t really ever talked about it in open city council meetings. Citizens keep thinking, when is our chance going to be to communicate what we think or ask for our input? And it's never happened.”

“If this is the way business is going to be handled, it may or may not impact a casino coming here, but don’t you think other businesses and investors would look at all this mess that’s going on and think: is it worth it to come to Petersburg and try to start something here?” Rudolph continued.

Proposed Casino in Petersburg, Virginia
Petersburg City Council

After the meeting Wednesday, Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham said the council is united in bringing the "game-changing" project to Petersburg voters. Parham said they are not focused any back-and-forth between the city and the state legislature at this point.

They reiterated that their third-party financial consultants reported the Cordish plan was the most beneficial to the city from a financial perspective.

Ultimately, regardless of the process for picking an operator, Petersburg voters will have to approve of the project this fall during a voter referendum for it to move ahead.

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