Deep Dive: Casinos, Highways, and Ignoring RVA Voters

Downtown Richmond

by Jon Baliles

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.

They say the past is prologue and that if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it, among other famous quotes that have stood the test of time. And they have a factor of truth and lesson in them. And so is the case with next month’s casino referendum, the second one we have had the chance to vote for because the first one was ignored by city leaders in 2021.

This Deep Dive is a look back at the last time Richmond faced two referendums on one topic in short succession — the people were asked to vote to register their voice and they said no to the city leaders, planners, and business leaders. Both times, the people’s voice was ignored, and both times the city leaders overruled their vote and their voice and pursued their plans irrespective of the results — with disastrous and long-lasting consequences.

This may be starting to sound familiar.

The Mayor and the casino advocates failed in 2021 at the polls and were blocked by the legislature in 2022. So they are back on the ballot in 2023 and pulling out all the stops to convince (or buy) people to approve another casino referendum that will save Richmond and deliver tons of tax revenue and jobs forever. Big decisions can have major impacts, and those impacts are not always positive and usually obscured by bold talk and big promises.

What resulted from ignoring two referendums in the early 1950’s was the forced location of a highway in an area where the people didn’t want it — even the people that didn’t live anywhere near it. What followed from ignoring those referendums was the wanton bifurcation and decimation of much of the Jackson Ward neighborhood and its vibrancy, the relocation of almost 10,000 people (most of whom were black), and many churches — all for a legacy “project” that promised everything but delivered more pain than relief.

You may have heard the history in various forms over the years. For example, Harry Kollatz wrote in Richmond Magazine back in 2013:

Toward the late 1940s, Richmond underwent a series of convulsions that sent the city and region careening toward a future whose consequences few people could adequately understand.

In 1946, the city endorsed its first long-range master plan created by St. Louis planning consultant Harland Bartholomew. The post-World War II building boom had left too few trained land-use planners to go around, so Richmond — like many cities — was defaulting to engineers, builders and outside consultants, many of whom were recommending the planned demolition of their own city centers. Bartholomew called for clearing “slums” and dealing with the impact of greater numbers of automobiles congesting the city’s streets.

That same year, triggered by Bartholomew’s wide-ranging plan, R. Stuart Royer and consulting engineers Consoer, Townsend and Associates brought out their Report on Express Highways, Through and Between the Cities of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. The document called for cutting an expressway through Shockoe and old Jackson Ward.

Just last month, Em Holter at the Times-Dispatch had a piece that quickly covers the that period of about seven years and sums up the “we know best, trust us” mantra that was a familiar refrain City Hall back then — and now.

City officials attempted to reassure residents that the project was in the best interests of everyone, and several key entities like the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce as well as the Richmond Chamber announced their endorsements of the project.

City-led studies stated there would be minimal impact as a result of the project and reassured that those displaced would have ample time to find new housing. Additionally, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority boasted several ongoing public housing projects that would help accommodate, specifically, the majority black populations that were most affected by the project’s construction.

Starting to sound familiar? “We have everything covered, all the plans are flawless, the projections are impressive, the impact is manageable, the benefits are everlasting,” they tell us, both back then and today.

Several plans were devised and considered over that time period in the late 40’s and early 50’s to build an highway/expressway that would help relieve north-south congestion on Route 1 (today from Richmond Highway up to Belvidere and to Chamberlayne Avenue) and east-west congestion on Broad Street. After the city changed the charter to create a Council-City Manager form in government in 1948, the highway advocates were still pushing and City Council voted 9-0 in 1950 to consider a highway plan. The plans each varied slightly, but all four took the road right through Jackson Ward.

A well organized and funded advocacy group called the Richmond Forward Highway Committee was formed and supported by business leaders and city leaders and planners. There was a small group of opponents that fought against the plan that had a fraction of the resources of the Highway Committee.

Starting to sound familiar? You might have read that in 2021, casino advocates spent $2.6 million on a campaign that came up short by about 1,500 votes while the opposition to the casino spent about $250,000. This time around, the casino advocates have already raised $8.1 million and are paying and buying friends and influence and door knockers and promising trust funds and pickle ball for all if the second referendum is approved. The opposition this year has raised about $150,000.

Much of the opposition in 1950 wasn’t opposed to a highway per se, they mainly just opposed the route that would rip up Jackson Ward. The opponents pushed hard to have the road run through Shockoe Valley (alongside the still existing railroad tracks) because there would be fewer dislocations and disruption of businesses; but they were told by the “experts” it was too expensive, or too challenging, etc.

Christopher Silver has a masterpiece of a book about Richmond’s tragic opera of the city’s planning decisions entitled “Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race.” He wrote:

“Planners in Richmond devoted more attention to the highway issue between 1946 and 1956 than to any other element of the master plan.”

Silver also wrote a refrain still familiar to many Richmonders today: The business leaders and city planners and leaders “insisted that losses sustained-by inner-city neighborhoods would be offset by gains released through easier access to the downtown area.”

So, you had all the political and money power in the city pushing for a project that was great and going to save and transform the city, etc., and a small group opposed because they saw detriment and destruction instead of progress.

Starting to sound familiar?

The result of the 1950 referendum might surprise you: 42% (11,355 residents) voted for the highway plan, and 58% 15,309 voted against it. The city had 55 voting precincts citywide; 45 precincts voted against the referendum, eight precincts voted in favor, and two precincts split 50-50. A coalition of people black and white voters citywide opposed a highway cutting through the heart of the city.

Silver says the city leaders didn’t trust the people to understand the vote. “Unconvinced that initial popular opposition represented an informed judgement on the merits of the expressway plan, the council immediately called for a further study and a new plan.”

One voter wrote to the Times-Dispatch and scolded the arrogance of the city leaders and challenged the fact that the public was uninformed. They wrote simply that the city should look for other solutions to the congestion problem and asked:

“Why Richmond should be torn to pieces, and valuable property uselessly destroyed, has never been made clear, when all other large cities (except Baltimore) have expressways around, not through, the main streets, with arteries at intervals leading to the metropolis. It would be interesting to discover why Richmond can not do the same. Our mayor remarks that”we’ve got to show the people the need for an expressway’.” Believe it or not, Your Worship, we the majority with our low grade IQs do not need to be shown.”

And after the loss, the leaders moved on with another plan, right? Two days after the vote, City Council met to plan on discuss getting another highway plan approved. It was too important, they said. And the editorial page of the Times-Dispatch declared that a highway was inevitable.

In January 1951, a “new” highway plan was unveiled, but the maps were virtually the same bad options as the 1950 referendum plan. In April 1951, the planning commission voted unanimously for a “long range expressway plan similar to the one defeated in the 1950 referendum.” Council approved the plan and passed an ordinance for $150,000 for bonds to build the project.

Starting to sound familiar? Casino advocates recently rebranded the project into Richmond Grand Resort and Casino and claimed it was “absolutely a new design,” even though Axios Richmond took a look a the rebranding pictures and schematics and found that Aside from the new name and new renderings, the only other substantial change [from 2021] to plans for the facility is a promise to include pickleball courts in a 55-acre park surrounding the venue.”

City Council approved putting the referendum back on the ballot with an 9-1 vote. After the first referendum failed in 2021, Mayor Stoney promised a two cent real estate tax in cut in early 2022 to get people excited about a second referendum. Since then, he has changed his tune and said tax increases would be likely to fund all the city’s needs if the casino isn’t approved in 2023.

So, yet again, back in 1951, people called for an optional highway route through Shockoe Valley or around the city through another route were ignored and rejected by city leaders. The opposition moved quickly to block city leaders from ramming the project through and forced the plan to go to a referendum. According to Silver, Opponents of the “super-streamlined sewer,” drawn from a coalition that cut across class and race lines, mounted a campaign for another referendum” and collected twice the number of required signatures to force the vote. They were required to get 4,000 signatures and collected 8,000.

Business and political leaders back then called the opposition “a reactionary element who were more interested in politics than in giving traffic relief” and charged that they were fooling black voters “into opposing worthwhile project.”

Starting to sound familiar? You might recall after the first referendum was voted down, the excuses were numerous, like the referendum vote was suspiciously placed on the back of the ballot (even though the pro-casino advocates pointed that out in their mail and ads and state law mandates a specific order), and 9th District Councilman Mike Jones blamed other neighborhoods, even though it was a citywide referendum. He said: “I don’t think Richmond said no to the casino. You see the Southside said yes to the casino. What you see are other neighborhoods trying to dictate what goes on a particular part of the city.””

So what happened to the referendum in 1951? The people saw the light and voted for the vision of the city leaders and highway advocates, right?

When tallied, 37% (8,815 residents) voted for the highway plan referendum, and 63% (14,817 residents) voted against it. Out of the 55 voting precincts, 50 voted against it and five voted for it. According to Silver, all of the city’s black precincts and most of white working class ones voted against it. Of the five precincts voting for it, four of those margins were slim. Only one (near Byrd Park) was overwhelming in favor.

An interesting nugget found by Silver was that analysis shows that “both supporters and opponents secured the strongest backing from areas virtually unaffected by the proposed route.” So, people all over the city who were not at all affected by the highway thought it was a bad idea to destroy Jackson Ward and voted accordingly.

Starting to sound familiar? The instant and lazy analysis after the referendum failed in 2021 was that the richer, white parts of the city voted against the casino and the poorer, black parts of the city (especially those near the casino site) voted for it. Except, a closer look at the results shows that people voted against the casino all over the city, and at least 23,179 votes of the 40,243 total no-casino votes were cast by Terry McAuliffe for Governor voters in 2021. There were 61,929 total votes for McAuliffe across the city, but only 38,750 total votes for the casino.

You can read a more in-depth look at the breakdown here, but here is a quick look: In the 5th district, McAuliffe averaged 83% of the vote across seven precincts but the pro-casino vote only averaged 45%. In the 7th district McAuliffe averaged 84% but the casino only received 56%. Many people across all kinds of lines simply had (and have) the opinion that a casino is a bad idea and they said so.

Want to take a wild guess as to the reaction from the highway plan proponents the day after the referendum failed in 1951? Mayor Nelson Parker said, “I think that the route proposed certainly is dead as far as the city council is concerned.”

Local businessman Walter Craigie who led the expressway advocate group called Citizens for Traffic Relief, said: “…it is evident that we just didn’t do a good enough job of educating the people who cast the ballots.”

Former Mayor Bright (who led the opposition) said City Council and the planning commission should “follow the will of the people” or resign (now there’s an idea!). He once again called for another highway route, just not through Jackson Ward.

Starting to sound familiar? After the casino referendum was narrowly defeated in November 2021, Stoney said the very next day, “From the beginning, we said the people would decide. They have spoken, and we must respect their decision.” The leader of the casino project, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins, was quoted in the Free Press and said he and his mother, Cathy Hughes, the company’s chair, “accept the will of the Richmond residents” and called the defeat a “huge, missed opportunity for Richmond.” The proposal for a second casino referendum was launched within weeks of those two statements.

So what happened after the second referendum in 1951 failed? The leaders listened to the people and abandoned the plan/route that was voted down, right?

Just the opposite. What happened next was actually worse. The city leaders decided to take the people and a referendum out of the equation completely to get what they wanted. In August 1953, City Council voted to give the power to build the road to the General Assembly so they could create an authority that would build a toll road and issue bonds. Since it was a state authority with quasi-independence, it was not required to hold a referendum. Construction began two years later and the road was opened in 1958.

And just like all of the hollow casino promises, the usual talking points were used to push for and justify their actions after they ignored the referendums. According to Holter’s RTD article, “An anonymous plea in the Monday, Sept. 26, 1955, edition of the paper called for “just this once, let us get behind a bold, imaginative project,” claiming that once constructed, folks would “wonder how it could have been so bitterly opposed.”

Gee, I wonder. I seriously doubt any of the dislocated families, business owners, or church pastors in Jackson Ward found the highway’s route and the destruction of their homes and their neighborhood either bold or imaginative. And here we are 70 years later and many of the generational scars still remain from those decisions in the early 1950’s.

Holter continued: The destruction of Jackson Ward’s neighborhoods like Apostle Town continued to have lasting impacts. In January 1957, The Times-Dispatch reported that 2,100 black families had been evicted from their homes and had to find housing elsewhere.

“The great majority of (black) residents were displaced last year and this year from the turnpike route, the Carver redevelopment area, the Gilpin Court extension site, areas where the Medical College of Virginia is expanding, from houses condemned by the city as unsafe or unhealthy and from a few other locations,” stated Times-Dispatch reporter Bevin Alexander.

It’s hard (and sad) to imagine the trajectory of Jackson Ward and this entire city could have taken if the highway advocates had just found another path for the road. People all over the city saw what would happen and they voted against it, but the “leaders” didn’t listen. And what’s even more tragic is that after all the promises and proposed benefits from the advocates who said it would be well-worth the cost of ripping up Jackson Ward, they failed to even measure the impact of anything they had promised was a certainty.

Silver found that: “There was no serious study by local planners concerning the [highway], once it was completed, on either traffic congestion, downtown revitalization, or the distress wrought upon neighborhoods that lay along its route. Completion seemed to be an end in itself.”

Starting to sound familiar?

The Mayor and casino advocates have promised the casino will deliver everything a city could want — a casino, entertainment, a park, pickle ball, tons of tax revenue, jobs, careers, a trust fund for child care, eternal life, and peace on Earth. The list of promises is long and they are big — just like the ones they told us would come from putting a highway through the middle of downtown. Will we still be looking back in seventy years (or likely much sooner) that these casino promises were not only failures but left larger, more long-lasting problems behind?

The reason there was no audit or study in the years after the highway construction destroyed Jackson Ward was because everyone knew and saw the destructive nature of the project and didn’t want to admit that they had been horribly wrong. The people had it right the first (and second) time by saying find another highway route, but the leaders simply ignored them. And instead of fixing what they destroyed, the leaders simply moved on to their next big savior projects in the 1960’s and early 70’s: the civic center, the Downtown Expressway (which tore through the Oregon Hill and Randolph neighborhoods), and the Coliseum (which destroyed the Navy Hill neighborhood).

Too often, too many leaders at any governmental level convince themselves that they know more and know best and that everyone should just needs to fall in line and get behind their “vision.” More often than not, though, the people see and know what is going on and are smarter than leaders give them credit for. Doug Wilder has said for decades, “The people are always ahead of the politicians,” and he is right. Real leaders listen because they know they don’t know everything.

Not every issue should be required to go to a referendum, that is certain; it is too time consuming and too messy (just look at California). But back in 1951, the people wanted a second referendum because the leaders ignored the first one and tried to ram the same bad plan down the city’s throat, so the people forced the issue to the ballot by collecting signatures. In the case of the casino, state law requires a referendum of the locality to approve a casino license; it’s too bad state code doesn’t require leaders to listen to the results.

Our “leaders” today like the Mayor and all the casino advocates refused to listen to the voice of the people the first time because there is simply too much money to be made by all involved by getting a casino license approved. It was a narrow loss, but it was the people’s voice and that’s what happens sometimes in politics. But they ignored the first referendum results just like they did in 1950 and brought it back for a second vote. So surely, if the second vote fails (again) like it did in 1951, you would just assume the issue was finally resolved, right?

Not so fast. Just this week, the Mayor was asked about the possibility of a third shot at a referendum if needed, and bafflingly, he left the door open with a squishy answer, according to Jahd Khalil at VPM:

But if Richmond votes no for the second time, it’s unclear whether it would be brought onto the ballot a third time. When asked if Stoney would bring it to the ballot again if faces with a loss, Gianni Snidle, a spokesperson, wrote the following:

“Right now, Mayor Stoney is focused on informing Richmonders about how the Richmond Grand will fund the Child Care and Education Trust Fund, provide 1,300 good-paying union jobs, and create a new world-class entertainment venue with green space, new restaurants, and bars—a game-changer for Southside and Richmond as a whole.”

So right now, Stoney says he is focused on the second referendum. But maybe on November 8, his focus will turn to the possibility for a third referendum in 2024 if this vote doesn’t go the way he wants. He might then take a page and learn a lesson from the city “leaders” from the early 1950’s and find a way just to get the casino approved on the third try through the legislature without involving or listening to the public at all. If that is the case, let’s hope and pray that it would have better results than it did for Jackson Ward, and that we aren’t still bemoaning that awful decision seven decades later.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. 

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3 responses to “Deep Dive: Casinos, Highways, and Ignoring RVA Voters”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t know all the ins and outs of putting I- 95, I-64 and the Powhite Parkway through Richmond, but it’s quite clear they went through existing neighborhoods Robert Moses style!

    More than a few cities have these highways done years ago.

    Nowdays, you cannot do it because of laws against it – as well as
    other infrastructure like smokestacks and other neighborhood impacting stuff. NEPA environmental justice.

    It was never about local citizens having some ability to affect the decisions for the most part. VDOT would draw a line and FHWA would anoint it and it was done regardless of how the neighborhoods felt about it.

    I don’t know that I’d compare the highway process ot the casinos.

  2. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Thank you for the history. Any reason not to also mention the Coliseum and Main Street Station? Huge successes, amirite?
    Sounds like the people most affected and being lied to about all the supposed benefits understand.
    But grifters gonna grift.
    How about do your jobs? Arrest criminals. Put them in jail. Pick up trash. Have schools that actually work? I know it is a crazy idea…

  3. John Fisher Avatar
    John Fisher

    It doesn’t just happen here. In 1966 the Maryland rejected adding a second span to the Bay Bridge in a referendum. Two years later the legislature authorized it anyway.

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