Petersburg Casino referendum bill advanced by Senate committee

The residents of Petersburg are a step closer to having a gaming venue in the city. On Thursday, a Virginia Senate subcommittee recommended the approval of a proposal to bring a casino into the municipality with a 7-2 vote.

In Virginia’s senate General Laws and Technology gaming subcommittee, which took place on Thursday, the speakers in support and opposing Sen. Joe Morrissey’s legislation included the city of Petersburg representatives, the casino developer to be used, and the city of Richmond.

The next step involves the bill progressing to the full General Laws and Technology Committee, and if a formal vote passes it, it will move on to the House of Delegates. Petersburg residents will decide whether a casino will hold operations in the city in November only if Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs the combined bill.

The bill seeks to include Petersburg in the list of cities permitted to hold a casino referendum and allow its residents to decide on the future of a casino in Petersburg.

Sen. Morrissey’s legislation will also stop Richmond from organizing a second casino recommendation this fall until Petersburg gets its chance to hold one. It stipulates that a city that held a previous vote on a gaming venue and is around 25 miles from another eligible municipality would have to wait until the city hosts its vote within the year to organize another referendum.

Richmond technically has another chance to offer a referendum; however, it will be after 2024, and Petersburg’s casino project will likely be in development. This means that Richmond has no chance of opening a casino in 2023, a development that has frustrated Richmond’s referendum do-over supporters.

This comes after a failed Richmond casino referendum in 2021. At the time, voters in the city narrowly rejected the idea of a casino in Richmond. Voters in municipals like Danville, Portsmouth, Bristol, and Norfolk already approved casino proposals. Portsmouth opened its first gaming venue earlier this week while permanent gaming venues are in development in the other cities.

In 2022, Sen. Morrissey revealed a The Cordish Cos. operated casino in Petersburg would generate up to 1,800 jobs in the city in addition to the multi-use development of the 90 acres surroundings. Recent reports state that the project will be carried out over the next 15 years with $1.4 billion in investments.

Speaking to the subcommittee earlier this week, Sen. Morrissey introduced the bill as a measure that would transform “one of the most iconic cities in the United States.” He also said it would contribute to Petersburg’s economic needs using generated tax revenue. Sen. Morrissey further disclosed it would aid job growth and increase funding for Petersburg’s public schools.

Sen. Morrissey also promised that musical acts like Carrie Underwood, Snoop Dogg, and Bruce Springsteen would be live at the Petersburg casinos. Workers in the project’s first phase will reportedly receive an average salary of $60,000. This phase includes the casino, a parking garage, and a hotel in the venue.

Sen. Morrissey predicted that the Petersburg casino would ultimately bring about at least 10,000 jobs, including direct and indirect hires, within 10 years of its completion.

A number of Petersburg city officials have spoken in support of the bill, with John “March” Altman Jr., the city manager, saying the time was right for a “once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity.”

Zed Smith, the Chief operating officer of Cordish, also spoke on the proposed casino and claimed that the officers in his company were “urbanists at heart,” and this was an opportunity for Petersburg residents to improve their economy.

“Petersburg has struggled for many, many years. This is an opportunity. It gives the citizens of Petersburg the opportunity to move the needle in their own city,” Smith added.

Some other parties have viewed the proposal and its benefits with more skepticism. Earlier on, a VCU professor, Elsie Harper-Anderson asked that voters assess the promised 10,000 job opportunities and $10 million in revenue and determine if they were achievable.

“We know that through many studies, that 80% of the jobs that are created by economic development projects, five years later, are no longer benefiting the individuals in the place where the economic development took place,” Professor Harper-Anderson said.

“So for example, as far as the jobs, if people come in from outside and take the jobs, over time, it ends up not having the impact that most of the studies that have these huge multipliers project.”

The VCU professor took note of Petersburg’s current workforce and infrastructure, stating that the city might need more time to handle a project of such magnitude. She disclosed that the total employment in Petersburg was 12,000, so 10,000 was a considerable number.

Harper-Anderson also talked about the new revenue the casino would bring and how raising the quality of life of the Petersburg residents was as important.

“It represents growth, more jobs, more money, but in order for to raise to the level of being ‘development,’ it has to increase the quality of life for the people who are there. And so I would like to hear more about that,” the professor added.

Richmond city officials are some of the strongest opposition to the bill. Recently, Leonard Sledge, the city’s economic development director, and four of its City Council members spoke against the bill.

Reva Trammell seemed the most passionately opposed to the bill. She is the representative of the South Side district where a ONE Casino + Resort would have been constructed if the November 2021 referendum had succeeded.

Trammell claimed the South Side district was struggling, and its residents barely had the essential amenities to carry out their daily activities.

“We don’t have internet in our house. We don’t have computers. We can’t afford them. What do we do? How do we survive? How do we send our children to school when they don’t have shoes to put on their feet? It breaks my heart. I’m just asking you please, please, give us one more chance,” Trammell pled.

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