Richmond casino supporters pulling out all the stops: 'They're throwing all kinds of things at the wall'

Richmond Casino
Posted at 7:07 PM, Sep 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-27 23:34:17-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Press conference after press conference, city leaders, developers, and supporters have re-pitched a casino to Richmonders, many of whom are optimistic about the project.

“I definitely support a casino," said Malcolm Barnes, a Southside Richmond resident who voted for the casino in 2021 and plans to do so again in November. “I find that to be a very good move for the city. We don't have anything major that could just bring chunks of money like that.”

Malcolm Barnes
Malcolm Barnes

But others remain skeptical of bringing Urban One and Churchill Down's proposed casino, resort, and entertainment venue, dubbed "Richmond Grand Resort and Casino," to the river city.

“It’s a bloodsucker. It’s going to take more than it gives, and it’s smoke and mirrors," said Richmond resident Joe Ellis. "You can never have an institution that's based upon making a profit from taking money from people without giving something substantially back to the people over a prolonged period of time. How can that be sustainable?"

Backers of the casino have pulled out all the stops in an effort to convince voters that the gaming destination will produce positive benefits for the city. 

Poster image - 2023-09-27T183727.858.jpg

In recent weeks, supporters have announced that a deal was reached with a local union that would bring "family-sustaining wages and benefits" to construction workers. And earlier this month, Mayor Levar Stoney told voters that if they pass through the casino, the city will establish a multi-million-dollar childcare trust fund, using gaming tax revenue, that he said will make early education more affordable.

This week, the Richmond City Council unanimously passed a resolution that sets the stage to kickstart the trust fund, if the November referendum is approved.

Voters CBS 6 spoke to Wednesday offered mixed reactions.

“I think childcare will be very good, but I also believe, cover it in a broader span of the whole school system," Barnes said.

"Has [the lottery] solved the problems with education as they promised it would? It has not," Ellis said. “Gambling is not going to solve the problems with childcare.”

Dr. Bob McNab, economics professor at Old Dominion University, said the most important question to ask about this proposal is, "Who bears the burden of the tax?"

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McNab said research shows that a casino in Richmond would not draw many people from out of the state. In fact, he said an overwhelming majority of the customer base, which is 90-96% according to a 2019 JLARC study, would come from the local market, or in other words, within a two-hour radius.

So, a childcare trust fund, he said, may likely be supported by city residents and by shifting around other local and regional dollars. A report submitted to the City Council in June noted that an estimated 22% of gaming revenue would come from Richmond residents, according to a 2021 market analysis.

“Who is gambling at the establishment? If it's local residents, it's a local tax. If you could increase the number of people coming from outside the region, then you're exporting the tax, and that would be the argument I think proponents would like to make," McNab said. "But again, the literature tends to argue that most gamblers at casinos come from within a two-hour area, and that's why the burden is going to primarily be in the Richmond area."

He said that Richmond would still benefit as the locality that receives the revenue which will provide for additional services, adding, "but some of that additional revenue is going to be paid by your residents, and you should be clear about that in any proposal."

The pro-casino political action committee has received a record-breaking $8.1 million dollars to campaign for the casino, according to public finance reports. For the 2021 referendum, the PAC raised $2.6 million.

CBS 6 political analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth
CBS 6 political analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth

CBS 6 political analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth said this year's campaign efforts appear to be much more organized, coordinated, and aggressive -- a big attempt to win over a small portion of voters who narrowly struck down the casino in 2021.

“By and large, what you're seeing is just a full-scale effort. From what I could tell right now, the casino is spending more money per week on advertising than any political candidate in the in the area when we're talking about an election that is likely to have tremendous consequences for the makeup of the General Assembly," Holsworth said.

On the other side, the "No Means No" PAC has raised about $142,000, which Holsworth said feels like "David versus Goliath" compared to the pro-casino PAC.

Holsworth said the fact that this marks the second referendum after Richmonders already voted down the proposal once could leave a bad taste in some peoples' mouths when they head to the polls, but he said casino supporters appear to have the upper hand in terms of resources and momentum.

“They're throwing all kinds of things at the wall, you might say, to see what might stick in a positive way," Holsworth said.

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