Va.’s fifth casino isn’t a sure bet — and citizens’ views on it aren’t black and white

October 6, 2023 1:03 pm

A house in Richmond’s Northside urges voters to support a second proposal to build a casino in the city’s Southside. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Richmond city leaders really, really want a casino. So much so that they resurrected an effort to build a sprawling, $562 million entertainment emporium that Richmond voters killed in 2021. 

Voters will have another chance to yea or nay the casino in November’s general election after Richmond City Council voted June 12 to put the casino referendum on the ballot once again. Public perceptions of the casino are mixed, with voters pointing to an array of factors from race to economic equity that they see as front of mind in the decision.

The Richmond Grand Resort and Casino developers are making lots of promises about how much their venue would benefit the 8th and 9th districts of Richmond’s Southside, a largely Black and Latino part of the city that has long struggled with poverty, unemployment, limited economic development and other challenges. It’s understandable, then, that the developers’ claims that the casino will create 1,300 jobs is attractive to many Southside residents. The jobs, plus an initial $25 million payment to the city and an estimated $30 million in revenue generation each year, definitely sounds like a sweet deal.

Fifth Virginia casino could be in the cards, but Richmond voters still divided

But there is limited evidence that casinos are a boon for the communities or states where they’re built. “We find that, despite tax revenues being a major motivator for state legalization of casinos, there is little evidence that they boost state taxes,” wrote the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond last year. And there’s absolutely no guarantee that the casino, if built, would actually make as much money as its developers project. If it doesn’t become a cash cow, how will it give tens of millions to the city?

It’s important to note that the doomed 2021 referendum was most strongly supported in the majority-Black 8th and 9th districts, but soundly rejected in the whiter, more affluent 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th districts. Some, including Richmond City Council President Michael Jones, feel that the perspectives of Black Southside residents shouldn’t be overshadowed by those of white Richmonders. 

“As an African-American male, I have a problem hearing white people say ‘this is not good for Black people, this is not good for poor people.’ That’s a very paternalistic view and perspective,” Jones told VCU’s Capital News Service.  

I agree with Jones. We should acknowledge the agency and perspective of Black voters on the casino issue; some want it, others don’t, and it’s their right to assert their views. Black people are not monolithic, and this casino issue is a prime example of the diversity of thoughts, beliefs and values of Black Richmonders and Virginians. 

At the same time, however, we should take a critical look at the casino and question its potential value or detriment to Richmond and to the state. No project this expensive and expansive should escape scrutiny of every detail. 

Some of those details give me pause. One is the fact that the casino developers have brought on a major new partner, Churchill Downs, a company that’s been repeatedly accused of underpaying and exploiting Black and Latino Kentucky Derby workers and “gentrifying” the surrounding South End community in Louisville. Another is the recent revelation that the casino’s parent company, Urban One, has a record of shoddy financial recordkeeping and reporting and could soon be delisted from the NASDAQ stock market.

The state of the Derby

I’m not a Richmond resident, though, and it will be up to those who are to determine whether the casino is the right fit for their hometown. In the meantime, the city leadership’s best bet would be to continue listening to the voices of all its citizens, not only those who want the casino as badly as they do.

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.