Resorts Like Airports

by Jon Baliles

There has been a lot of boasting from the casino advocates about their partnership with Kentucky-based Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI). The rebranded Richmond Grand casino developer Urban One is a radio and TV conglomerate that has said they are partnering with CDI because of their huge capitalization and experience with casinos. But let’s take a look at Churchill Downs’ casino portfolio, because it’s not what the casino advocates have been claiming.

CDI is obviously world-famous for the running of the Kentucky Derby horse race, and they have expanded their portfolio to include more and more gaming facilities in recent years. CDI bought out Peninsula Pacific Entertainment (PPE) in a $2.75 billion deal in 2022, and PPE had been Urban One’s original partner in the first, failed casino referendum. The deal included the Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent, as well as six Rosie’s Gaming Emporium historical horse racing facilities across Virginia plus two smaller casinos, one in Iowa and one in New York. But among the eleven casinos in the CDI portfolio, none are anywhere near the scale what they promise for Richmond. And none of those eleven casinos resemble anything grand — except for the indisputable fact that the house always wins, even if the resort looks more like an airport.

The Richmond Grand advocates claim their casino will have a 250-room hotel, an entertainment/concert venue with 3,000 seats, a TV and film production soundstage, and 15 restaurants and “dining options.” But if you look at their other casinos, they are all small casinos in small markets and are not even close to the “resort” they claim to be bringing to Richmond.

The dining claim is an especially interesting one because you wonder how the economics work so that a 250-room hotel and casino with 2,000 slot machines and even a medium-sized concert venue could support 15 “dining options.” It’s almost as absurd as the claim made during the Navy Hill boondoggle where the revenue chart showed there would be 25 restaurants (each about 3,000 square feet, which is huge) in and around the coliseum. Just like that, all those eateries would all magically appear and be sustainable for years and years and produce massive meals taxes (that would have paid the coliseum debt, not for schools or services). But I digress.

CDI’s most recent casino endeavor is the still-under-construction $290 million Terre Haute Casino Resort in Indiana that will boast a 122-room hotel, 1,000 slots, 35 table games, and five restaurants and six bars when it expects to open early next year. But there are lots of other great casinos and resorts that CDI now owns in places that are synonymous with relaxing and resorting. CDI’s Riverwalk Casino in Vicksburg, Mississippi is the “ultimate getaway” and has 600 slots and an 80-room hotel. But before you plan your trip, know that their hotel is only open Thursday-Sunday nights.

Or you might choose to stop at CDI’s Presque Isle Downs & Casino just outside of downtown Erie, PA, which they claim “is your best bet for excitement every time you play!” They have 1,500 slot machines and 30 table games along with sports betting. They also have a live thoroughbred horse racing track that raced 80 times this year, all on weekdays.

You could also visit the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino next time you are rolling through Sioux City, Iowa because it is “a true entertainment destination.” They have 640 slots and 20 table games next to a four-star Hard Rock hotel that has 54 rooms, a sportsbook, and a music memorabilia collection with over 100 items from Slash to [Johnny] Cash. They also have two dine-in restaurants and three bars and bill themselves as “More than just gaming — a true entertainment destination,” just like the Richmond Grand promises. According to their calendar, they have upcoming events between now and Thanksgiving with acts like the Ultimate 90’s Dance Party, Boy Band Night, Black Stone Cherry with Giovannie and the Hired Guns, comedian Jamie Lissow, and country artist Hailey Whitters.

If you seek warmth, you can head down to the Calder Casino in Miami Gardens, Florida, and check out 1,100 slot machines and table games as well as electronic table games where you can get fleeced even faster. They even tell you to get ready to win! “Our bigger, better collection of Vegas-style slot games means lots of jackpots, so be sure to have your victory dance on standby!”

Calder Casino also has a quick-bite food place appropriately called Lucky’s and its casual dining restaurant is cleverly named The Kitchen — but it is open only Thursday-Sunday. What does it say about these casinos if their best dining option is only open a few nights a week and the rest of the options resemble airport food?

Speaking of airports, if you are flying through Chicago, you can stop at CDI’s Rivers Casino which sits right next to O’Hare Airport where they have more than 1,500 slots that cost from $.50 cents to $100 per pull. Jackpot!

And if you find yourself in upstate New York you can visit the del Lago Resort & Casino in Waterloo, NY that has more than 1,700 slots, 66 table games and a sportsbook that is open 24/7 so you can bet on soccer matches in Asia in the middle of the night. If you get hungry, they have a sub shop, a hot dog cart, a burger joint (and a few others) and a bar with a 360-degree view of the casino floor and slots. They also have a premium steakhouse called Portico by Fabio Viviani — but it’s open only Thursday through Sunday. The other dining options also look like the airport — not terrible, but nowhere near great, and way overpriced.

What is most bewildering about the del Lago Resort & Casino is its stated commitment to the community “by dedicating time to creating strong partnerships with local organizations.” To benefit from the casino’s largesse, you have to complete an application (obviously) that is reviewed by a del Lago committee. But their website lists the organizations they do NOT contribute to.

Their not giving to politicians, I get (at least officially, wink-wink — free comps!); but what is left to donate to in the Seneca Lakes region of New York if you can’t give to a little league team, church food pantry, or local documentary or memorial? Do they give money at all, and exactly whom does it benefit?

Even if CDI casinos don’t deliver on all (or any) of their community promises, the one thing they ALL offer you are big specials if you sign up for their rewards programs or Players Clubs, etc. They offer incentives and promotions, slot points, your own birthday kiosk(!!), special “hot seats,” and the occasional free $5 or $10 credit because the more you spend time there and empty your wallet, the more the casino wins! So, join the club — it’s like getting a coupon for losing less than you would have if you didn’t have the membership.

So, to recap, Urban One has no experience in gaming casinos or resort development. And CDI knows horse-racing and has eleven small-time casinos that very few would confuse with a resort (plus a lot of gaming emporiums like Rosie’s with a zillion slots, which NO ONE would confuse with a resort). But neither developer has a partnership with a major casino operator with experience like an MGM Grand or Bally’s, etc. Nor has either developer ever done a resort on the scale of what they are promising to deliver in Richmond.

Factor that with Urban One facing imminent delisting by the Nasdaq exchange for outstanding accounting issues related to their last casino referendum. CBS6 reported: Urban One attributed the reporting delays to accounting errors pertaining to its investment in a Richmond Casino in 2021 and errors “with regard to the timing of expense recognition of non-cash stock based compensation.”

They have asked for repeated extensions and will have a hearing in November (after the vote). And Churchill Downs’ CEO told the Associated Press that the financing specifics of the project would not be finalized or made public until after the referendum.


So keep all that in mind the next time you see a slew of casino ads with all of the promises they claim will happen and how wonderful the whole complex will be and how much you can gamble and relax and eat. You might be better off spending less money on a plane ticket to a real resort and getting better food at the airport.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.