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Richmond casino supporters point out generational investment, opponents remain skeptical

ONE Casino.jpg
Posted at 6:48 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 21:29:28-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- After a panel recommended the $600 million Urban ONE Casino + Resort project move forward in Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney is set to formally introduce the proposal to City Council Monday night. Now, the process turns to public hearings and an eventual referendum in November, where city voters will have the final say on the project’s fate.

Supporters of the plan say the project will bring generational investment in south Richmond, a community long in need of economic development. Opponents are skeptical that the project will live up to the projections and promises made by developers and officials.

Charles Willis, president of the Richmond Highway Neighborhood Civic Association, said that spaces like the vacant, boarded-up former grocery store at Walmsley Blvd. and Richmond Highway are prime examples of why south Richmond needs the jobs and attraction of the Urban ONE project.

“All kinds of young folks had jobs here,” Willis said of the former Farm Fresh space. “Why did it shut down? There were no homes, no development.”

The developers of the ONE Casino + Resort plan said that they will bring thousands of jobs to the region and try to hire local workers.

Willis said the businesses he spoke with along Richmond Highway and residents in nearby neighborhoods back the project. He argues the amenities of the resort complex would bring further investment in south Richmond.

“For us, it’s a development that can come to our community like never before. We don’t have to fight anymore over dollars and cents,” Willis said. “Now is the time. One part of the city that’s left and that’s this part of the city right here.”

Willis said he would be interested in seeing if the city would connect Walmsley Boulevard between Richmond Highway and Commerce Road to make it easier for casino visitors to reach local businesses too.

Richmond was one of five cities state lawmakers allowed to pursue a resort/casino project but will become the final one to send a project to its voters. Voters in Danville, Bristol, Portsmouth, and Norfolk approved the projects in their cities by a sizable margin.

Richmond business analyst Blair Just said his professional experience has made him skeptical of most economic projections before construction even begins.

“No matter how well-founded they are you should take them with a grain of salt. I would start by slashing whatever projections are in the casino proposal by at least a third,” he said.

Just originally began engaging the issue because the proposal along Arthur Ashe Boulevard casino proposal is less than two miles from his home, but he said he hopes others continue pushing back against the project in the River City so that city officials and residents do not bank future prospects on unproven financial promises.

“We’re going to see casinos take money from our own citizens, a local audience,” Just said. “Make no mistake, Richmond is struggling for revenues, but this is not the silver bullet, there is no panacea. In a casino development, the house always wins.”

City Council must petition the circuit court for the voter referendum, which would then happen on November 2.