Budget Provision Could Put Yet Another Delay On Richmond Casino Referendum

Written By Steve Schult on February 24, 2022
Richmond casino referendum

A Virginia Senate committee passed a budget that would at least temporarily block a second Richmond casino referendum from happening.

It’s the latest development in the saga surrounding the potential site of Virginia’s eventual fifth Las Vegas-style casino.

Lawmakers added a provision to the budget bill that would block the Richmond referendum from happening until an independent consultant could review “potential state and local revenues that may be generated from a casino located in the city of Petersburg.”

The budget passed through the committee by a unanimous 15-0 vote Sunday. It still needs to pass a vote on the Senate floor and agreed to be the House of Delegates. If passed, the budget would postpone a second vote in Richmond until at least November 2023.

Recap of the drama around the Richmond casino referendum

The legislative process was smooth sailing during the first few years of the gambling expansion process in Virginia.

Then-Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation in April 2020 that would legalize sports betting and allow citizens of five economically depressed cities to vote on whether to bring casinos to their hometowns.

The cities included Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond. The first four voted in November 2020. Voters in the four cities passed the proposals with ease.

However, Richmond officials decided to push back its vote until the following November. But unlike the other cities, voters in Richmond voted against casino gaming.

Voters defeated the initiative by a narrow margin. Just 1,500 votes ultimately nixed the proposed $560 million One Casino + Resort.

The initial legislation allowed for five casinos in the state. As a result of Richmond’s rejection, politicians began the battle of where the fifth one will go.

Sen. Joe Morrisey, D-Richmond, submitted SB 203. While it didn’t mention the city by name, his bill would basically set the parameters for Petersburg, a Richmond-adjacent city with 30,000 people, to be the landing spot for the fifth property.

On the other hand, the Richmond City Council was making moves to try and give its citizens a do-over. Last month, the group voted by an 8-1 margin to allow for another vote.

A few weeks ago, members of a Virginia Senate committee voted against Morrisey’s bill. Consequently, a second Richmond vote seemed inevitable before Sunday’s development.

Richmond mayor “disappointed” with budget provision

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced a 2% property tax cut if voters brought a casino to Virginia’s capital. The plan was to sway voters with higher home values to vote for the casino on the second go-around.

Most of the “no” votes came from the West End, North Side, East End and Downtown. Those areas have much higher home values than the South Richmond area where the casino would’ve been located.

Given the difference in home values between typical “yes” and “no” voters, the tax cut seemed like a perfect plan.  After all, he only needed to change the minds of 1,500 residents in a city of 232,000.

Stoney was obviously less than pleased by the budget provision but remains hopeful his city will get a casino.

As he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“I am disappointed in Senate Democrats for inserting a prohibition on the city of Richmond in their budget proposal. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic something will be worked out between the chambers that will allow for Richmond to pursue this game-changing opportunity.”

Morrisey is on the other end of the spectrum. He told the same paper that he believes that budget provision will survive both a Senate floor vote and negotiations with the lower chamber. The democrat has gone on record several times saying a second vote would be “redundant and undemocratic.”

Fellow party members support his idea for similar beliefs. As Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, told the paper:

“The amendment requires Petersburg to follow the same process the other five cities followed by requiring the JLARC review and maintains the status quo pending that review.”

Fifth casino will open well after the first four

At this point, it’s hard to predict which city the fifth casino will end up in. However, the only thing that is certain is that wherever it ends up, it will be on a later timeline.

City Casino Projected Opening Date
Bristol Hard Rock Casino and Resort Bristol Mid-2022 (temporary casino), 2023 (full casino)
Danville Caesars Casino Resort Danville Q4, 2023
Norfolk HeadWaters Resort & Casino Q4, 2023
Portsmouth Rivers Portsmouth Casino Resort Early 2023

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Bristol is set to open a temporary gaming floor in the coming months. By the end of next year, all four properties will be up and running.

If the current version of the budget passes, there won’t be a referendum from any possible landing city until 2023. The other four casinos will be open for business before a city for the last casino is even chosen.

If it were to follow the same 2–3-year timeframe as the first four, the fifth Virginia casino wouldn’t open until 2025 at the earliest.

A more realistic expectation would be a 2026 open. That is also assuming lawmakers and citizens choose a city by the 2023 election.

Photo by Shutterstock / Novikov Aleksey
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Steve Schult

Steve Schult has covered the gambling world for the last decade. With stints as a staff writer for the World Series of Poker and Bluff Magazine, as well as the online content manager for Card Player Media, the New York native covered high-stakes poker tournaments and the overall casino industry. He’ll shift most of his focus to the Virginia, Maryland and Florida markets as a managing editor for Catena Media.

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