Slot machines in a casino. (Aaron Black / Getty Images)
The dream of a Fairfax County casino may have gone bust before it even really got off the ground.
Last month, two Virginia lawmakers introduced identical bills that would have amended state law to allow a casino to be built in any locality that has a population of more than 1 million and operates under an urban county executive form of government.
There’s only one county in Virginia that currently meets those requirements, and that’s Fairfax County.
But just days after being filed, both bills were withdrawn, with patron Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, saying they were “rushed” and more research was needed.
Marsden has left the door open for legislation to be re-introduced in 2024 in media interviews. However, discussions with lawmakers, county officials and a regional economic policy expert show there may be little appetite to go all in on a Fairfax County casino even if the proposal were to come up again next year.
The response “has mostly been negative,” Marsden told the Mercury. “It’s an election year, so people are nervous talking about those kinds of things.”
The bills also set further parameters on where a casino could go in the county, limiting it to being outside of the Beltway, not in the Dulles International Airport flight path, and “within one-quarter of a mile [of] an existing station on the Metro Silver Line.”
Those restrictions seem to leave only a few options for sites. Those likely include locations near Tysons Corner mall, Reston Town Center and Herndon’s new Innovation Center Metro station, as the Washington Business Journal reported.
Marsden said anxiety over the Silver Line and its newly opened 11.4-mile stretch connecting Reston and Loudoun County, an extension that cost $3 billion, is a big reason he proposed the bill in the first place.
“I’m very concerned about the future of Metro. … Ridership is down and we are facing a fiscal cliff here shortly in terms of how we are going to support Metro,” Marsden said. “Getting places built up with attractions and generating nightlife, generating restaurants and making it a destination improves both the economy of the commonwealth, the economy of Fairfax County and ridership on the Silver Line.”
However, at least one Fairfax County official isn’t buying into this rationale. Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who represents the district that includes Reston Town Center, has called the siting of a casino near the Silver Line a “bad idea on multiple levels” and “foolhardy.” Furthermore, he said, none of his constituents have expressed support for the idea.
“I’m not opposed to having a casino located near a Metro station somewhere, but why you would put that on the most valuable property in the region around the Silver Line stations baffles me,” Alcorn told the Mercury, pointing to research showing property values around the line are likely to soar.
Metro does have “serious problems,” he said, but a “casino is not going to bail Metro out of its financial woes.”
Virginia’s casino conundrum
Casinos have been a hot topic in Virginia since 2020, when the General Assembly approved legislation allowing casinos to be built in five Virginia cities if local residents supported the idea in a referendum.
Residents in four cities — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth — voted in favor of casinos. Late this January, Rivers Casino Portsmouth opened, becoming the first permanent full-service casino in Virginia.
But in the fifth city of Richmond, voters rejected the option in 2021. Petersburg has since vied to take over the fifth slot, but the legislation required to authorize the city to move forward faces tough prospects in the Senate.
The battles over casino siting have also raised the question of whether the General Assembly should continue to take the lead on deciding where casinos will and will not go in Virginia.
The referendum provisions of state law mean a casino can only be built if residents approve it, and any specific proposals have to go through local land use processes, including zoning review and public hearings. But under current law, the General Assembly continues to set the basic parameters of where a casino can go, leading to bills such as those put forward this year specifying casinos can only be sited outside of the Beltway and near a Metro station.
That’s because of the Dillon Rule, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Virginia adheres to the Dillon Rule, which dictates that localities can only exercise powers expressly granted to them by the state. In terms of legislating exactly where a casino can and cannot go, the state does have the authority to make that call, but that doesn’t mean it has to exercise it.
“Local governments in Dillon Rule states such as Virginia have for years pushed for greater autonomy to meet their own needs as they see best,” Rozell said. “The detailed conditions outlined in these bills suggest that state legislators do not trust localities how to figure this out for themselves. It is a bit paternalistic in my view.”
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay has repeatedly pushed back on the notion that a county with over 1 million people and an annual budget exceeding $4.7 billion shouldn’t be trusted to make decisions not explicitly allowed by the state. In fact, this issue of the state ceding some of this decision-making authority back to Fairfax County is part of the county’s legislative agenda for this year.
“Existing local government authority must be preserved and expanded, particularly in such key areas as taxation, land use, and the protection of public health, safety, and welfare,” the agenda reads.
Asked about the casino issue, McKay’s office reiterated the “long standing position” that localities should have more authority over land use decisions but declined to take a stance on the casino legislation.
Is building a Northern Virginia casino a gamble?
Beyond the local authority issue and the increasing popularity of gaming in Virginia, the question remains if a casino within the Silver Line corridor would be a good idea for Fairfax County and Virginia.
Terry Clower, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and a professor of public policy, certainly doesn’t think so.
“My first thought [when seeing the bill] was why,” Clower told the Mercury. “My second thought was why the hell why.”
Casinos today are more than just gaming, explained Clower; they are huge entertainment venues and a “destination” complete with restaurants, shopping, hotels and concert halls. The justification for their development is not simply that they will attract local residents to spend money there, but that they will attract others from far and wide to bring new money to the local economy.
“That’s getting to be a much harder argument because of the ubiquitousness of the casinos themselves,” Clower said.
Currently, a very large MGM-branded casino sits across the Potomac River from Alexandria in National Harbor. Another casino is in Baltimore. Four more are under development in the commonwealth. The question becomes how many of these massive entertainment centers can be supported in the market, Clower said.
Furthermore, he said, if a casino is built but isn’t successful, it may still pull spending and revenue from other local businesses, reorienting the economy around one massive attraction and “hollowing out” surrounding neighborhoods. And, in a worst-case scenario, the casino could just close.
“Then you got this big empty shell sitting there that depresses local property until you eventually have to raze it and redevelop it,” said Clower. “Then you have lost all resources and effort.”
Despite the continued need for development, Clower said building a casino along the Silver Line would signal panic.
“I can’t help but think of it as being in a way a measure of economic development desperation,” he said.
Marsden, however, continues to call a Fairfax County casino an “intriguing idea” and notes the legislation was simply a “trial balloon” to gauge interest. He said he will propose legislation again next yet only if county officials tell him they think it’s potentially a good option.
If not, then legislation to allow for a casino to be built in the Silver Line corridor will no longer be in the cards.
“You would never see it again,” said Marsden.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.