by Jon Baliles

Three weeks or so ago, the regurgitation of the casino referendum got a round of approval from almost everyone on City Council in a meeting that was filled with unearned righteousness about how it was going to save the city (kudos to Councilwoman Katherine Jordan for the lone no vote).

Richmond BizSense reported that:

Councilmembers contended that misinformation about the project the first go-round warranted putting it to the voters a second time. They stressed that the development (no longer being referred to as a casino), would not involve funding support from the city and would create jobs and economic opportunities for Southside and the rest of the city.

Of course, most people knew this the last go-round because the advocates of the casino spent $2.5 million on billboards, mailers, and ads telling us ad nauseam about the “benefits” of a casino and how it wouldn’t cost the city anything. Now, they want to pretend we were too stupid to know that the real reasons they were pushing the first time around weren’t what they spent $2.5 million promoting.

Narrow votes are quite common in a democracy. You win some and you lose some. Only despots and crybabies demand a revote of an outcome they claim was unfair even though they can’t prove it, and refuse to acknowledge that their argument may just not have been good enough to earn enough votes to win the day.

Council President Michael Jones even said that holding a second referendum is the very essence of democracy and not at all an insult to the voters.

“We did listen to the people in the last referendum. Democracy was served, because no shovels went into the ground the next week,” Jones said. “We can talk about all the issues about why it did and didn’t. Ultimately I believe the citizens should have an opportunity to vote on this this next time. I just firmly believe that.”

Of course, shovels could not have gone into the ground because the State Lottery Board would not have approved a license to build, but that’s beside the point. Jones also scoffed at people who pointed out that crime reports taken at Rosie’s Gaming Emporium on Midlothian Turnpike indicated that gambling attracted trouble (police were called to Rosie’s 268 times in the first two years). He actually said the drug dealing on Carnation Street (in his own district) was real crime, intimating that what happened on Rosie’s property was not. (Two days after his comments in early June, a man who robbed a 74-year-old grandmother in Rosies’ parking lot in broad daylight in 2022 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for breaking her hip and knocking her down while robbing her).

Jones also bewilderingly mentioned there was no other way that South Richmond would ever see a $500 million investment opportunity like the casino. He apparently forgot to recognize or mention that the largest cigarette factory in the world sits next door to the proposed casino and is assessed at more than $250 million and employs thousands of workers and pays tens of millions in tax revenue annually to the city. That plant, whatever you think of cigarettes, doesn’t take people’s money from them but provides them with income and benefits and pensions instead of robbing them of all three. The economic output of that facility is staggering, but it didn’t even get a shout-out from Jones because the casino is apparently the only thing that will save South Richmond.

Another interesting thing that happened in the casino debate recently was that Mayor Stoney has switched from fairly benign comments about the casino — the jobs and economic opportunity, etc. — to not mentioning the casino at all. As Axios Richmond reported, Stoney gave a long treatise about the casino at Councilwoman Reva Trammel’s June Town Hall meeting and never once said the word casino — “a destination resort” is what he called it. The Richmond Free Press also had an article noting that among supporters, “casino” is suddenly a four-letter word that will not be mentioned.

What is sadly tragic and comical about this attempted rebranding is that the mayor and the casino advocates could support and build an entertainment complex or destination resort in Southside or anywhere else in the city anytime they want. They could build a movie theater complex or a radio studio, just like others in the city have done. They could build an entertainment venue where live music and comedy acts could appear, just like others in the city have already done. They could build a spa and a hotel and all kinds of ancillary destination resort amenities without any of the hassles or hurdles you have to clear and funds you have to raise for a casino.

They would not need the state to authorize (another) referendum; they would not need a well-funded campaign spending millions to try and convince people they will get rich at a casino when only the owners and the connected benefit; they also would not need a review or approval by the Virginia Lottery and gaming commission; they could do so with hardly any controversy.

So the supporters can proclaim all they want that this is a “destination resort,” but few are fooled by those who know what this is really about. It’s about money. And it is a middle finger in the face of a democratic vote that did not go their way. They will keep trying to get it until they do get their way. If the referendum had been approved by 1,200 votes and those of us who opposed it tried to bring it back up for a revote, we would be considered peddlers of fake news and disinformation and told to accept the loss as the construction commenced with all due haste. Sore losers move on, they would tell us, the people have spoken.

But that was all news about the casino referendum from June. More recently, the million dollar political issue for the remainder of the summer now that the General Assembly primaries are over is what happens next. The conventional wisdom of late is that the referendum is almost certain to reappear on ballots in November in Richmond because the state budget talks are somewhere between stalemate and dead.

If that is the case, any chance for a vote on a Petersburg casino is all but dead. This is based on two recent occurrences: the primary election loss of Petersburg casino proponent Sen. Joe Morrissey, who has stymied the efforts to revive the Richmond referendum for the last twelve months, and the fact that the General Assembly and Governor Glenn Youngkin failed to reach a compromise on spending the $3.6 billion state budget surplus. (You know the political environment is absolutely toxic, vicious, and childish when politicians have a $3.6 billion pot of money and can’t find a compromise on how to spend it).

Nevertheless, as the Free Press notes this week, the budget stalemate is mostly but not all dead yet — and as Miracle Max reminds us in The Princess Bride, there is a difference between all dead and mostly dead.

The mayor and his casino minions are waiting for the go-ahead from the Virginia Lottery to OK the referendum. Then they can get the court to approve the question for the November ballot (which could occur by the end of this month). But, the governor could still call a special legislative session compromise on the budget which might in turn hold up the approval of the referendum.

Given that it is already midsummer, it’s possible that a special session might not occur until early September, which would make it too late for the Lottery to approve a referendum to appear on the ballot since ballots must be approved by registrars in August to meet the state’s early voting guidelines. If the budget is still unsettled and still being negotiated, it is possible the legal question puts the referendum off until it is clear what the state budget allows. If the budget impasse remains and there is no special session, then the referendum will likely receive approval to appear on the ballot yet again.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog, RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.

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5 responses to “RVA 5×5: Referendum Waiting In The Wings”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Well said. I had been thinking about going to Rosie’s, just to see it, but I am having second thoughts if there is so much crime around it.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Has anybody looked at other gambling operations in other states? Atlantic City, NJ? National Harbor, MD? Hollywood, FL? Detroit, MI?

    Now I know Virginia’s Plantation Elite are an insular bunch. I mean – they are all direct descendants of Pocahontas or some such nonsense.

    But I hope someone is looking at other cities in America which have instituted legal casino gambling.

    Some casino states have seemed to make it work while others haven’t.

    Lessons learned?

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      “Now I know Virginia’s Plantation Elite are an insular bunch. I mean – they are all direct descendants of Pocahontas or some such nonsense.”

      I hope that no Virginian who has ever claimed to be a descendant of Pocahontas has ever made fun of Elizabeth Warren for her claims of native American ancestry…

      It’s not just the “Plantation Elite” who make that claim, by the way.

      There are plenty of nobodies in Virginia who claim that, too.

    2. Super Brain Avatar
      Super Brain

      The tent casino in Danville seems to be working.
      The City has built a new police hq and is funding a of school capital expenditures. Should be better when Caesars Danville is ready. Richmond’s proposed casino is not much more than a glorified Rosies.

  3. WayneS Avatar

    “What’s in a name? That which we call a casino, by any other word would smell as rank.”

    With apologies to WS.

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