City Hall in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for The Virginia Mercury)
Of the five Virginia cities given permission to pursue a casino project, Richmond was the only one where voters said no. But the push for a casino in the state’s capital city could be getting even messier.
After the General Assembly approved a budget provision designed to nullify Richmond’s attempt to hold another casino referendum in November, a year after the previous one failed, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and his would-be casino partner are threatening to go to court to try to keep the city’s casino plan on track.
“We’re disappointed the Virginia General Assembly has amended the state budget in a way that will deliberately harm the City of Richmond by denying economic opportunities for its residents,” Stoney said in a Thursday news release, adding the city is “assessing our legal options.”
Urban One, the Black-owned media conglomerate whose corporate affiliates put $2.6 million into the unsuccessful 2021 casino referendum, also struck a defiant tone in statement released jointly with the city. That statement suggested the casino referendum planned for November will proceed as planned, despite the budget language that says the city can’t vote on it again until 2023.
“We will partner with the City of Richmond, including through litigation, to ensure that the people of Richmond have the final say on what happens in their community and that the rule of law is protected,” the joint statement said. It was later updated to say litigation would be an option “if necessary.”
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who spearheaded the push to block a second Richmond referendum in order to give the nearby city of Petersburg a shot at a casino project, said the law is clear and it’s time for Richmond casino proponents to “move on to other projects they might have.”
“The budget is the law,” Morrissey said. “The General Assembly spoke. The governor will speak by affixing his signature … and that’s it.”
Earlier this year, the Richmond City Council voted 8-1 to proceed to put a casino referendum on the 2022 ballot. A local judge already granted that request and ordered the referendum to be held. If Gov. Glenn Youngkin approves the casino language in the budget the General Assembly just approved, that plan would be in conflict with language declaring Richmond ineligible for a 2022 referendum. The budget also bars the Virginia Lottery from issuing a Richmond casino license until 2023 or later.
I'm tired of his whining.
– State Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, on Mayor Levar Stoney's push for a do-over on a Richmond casino project
The Richmond casino supporters could presumably claim the General Assembly’s action this week is an arbitrary, targeted effort to throw up new hurdles for their project, barriers that weren’t included in the original process for building casinos in Virginia.
However, that process always involved the state picking and choosing which cities could try to get a casino, and it was built on the idea that voters, as opposed to lobbyists or local politicians, should have the final say on whether a casino would fit with their community.
Because Richmond voters passed on the project, albeit by a narrow margin, the General Assembly is now deciding to give nearby Petersburg a shot at a casino development. The budget calls for an economic study of a potential casino in Petersburg, building on an earlier study that only looked at Richmond, Bristol, Portsmouth, Danville and Norfolk.
Voters in the four other cities approved their local casino projects, leaving the Richmond area as the big question mark remaining from the 2020 casino bill. That bill didn’t lay out a process for what would happen if any of the five cities said no.
Morrissey said he campaigned hard for the casino that would’ve been built in South Richmond, and is now prepared to push for Petersburg, which he says is exactly the type of economically challenged city the General Assembly felt could be helped by an influx of casino revenue. He said he hopes the Urban One team considers taking a look at Petersburg for its project, but expects a competitive process with no “backroom deals.”
“The best proposal wins,” Morrissey said. “I can’t be any clearer than that.”
Stoney defeated Morrissey in the 2016 Richmond mayoral race. Morrissey was elected to the state Senate in 2019, representing a district that includes Petersburg and parts of Richmond.
Morrissey said he wants the best for the people of Richmond and Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins. But he didn’t extend those well wishes to Stoney, who served as co-chair of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s failed comeback bid for governor last year.
“I’m tired of his whining,” Morrissey said. “He had an opportunity in November to campaign for the casino in South Richmond. He chose to spend the precious time that he had traveling around the state with Terry McAuliffe.”
In a statement, Stoney said Morrissey has “ripped opportunity from Black and brown Richmonders.
“He used the issue of women’s reproductive rights to bully and threaten Senate Democrats to go along with this amendment, and disenfranchised some of the very people he supposedly represents in the process. Petersburg beware!”
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