What to know before voting on Richmond’s casino question

Richmond

Urban One CEO Alfred C. Liggins, III spoke at a community meeting at Hickory Hill Community Center. (Photo: Samuel Hooper/WRIC)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — When residents of Richmond’s 8th City Council district gathered at Hickory Hill Community Center Thursday, they were welcomed with a wall of purple signs urging them to vote yes on a referendum this November to allow a casino nearby.

And greeting them inside, behind a small table set up in front of the stage, was Alfred C. Liggins, III – CEO of Urban One, the company behind the casino proposal.

His plan, billed as the ONE Casino + Resort, would see hundreds of millions invested in a hotel and casino complex off of Commerce Road on Richmond’s Southside – if they get the nod from voters.

While prominent political figures like Reva Trammell, councilwoman for the 8th district, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe have enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, others have registered opposition, like Senator Tim Kaine, who told reporters that he voted ‘no’ on his early ballot.

Development Deja Vu

Critics cite concerns that the proposal, like the failed Navy Hill development also championed by Mayor Levar Stoney, could end up costing the city, and possibly drain money from its poorest residents.

In a Facebook post on May 12, Democratic candidate and community activist Richard Walker wrote that the casino would “[pull] wealth from low-income communities, and provides political cover for legislators who don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy.”

Speaking at the community meeting, Trammell was quick to reassure residents that this proposal would be different.

She said she’s discussed the proposal at length, and her stance was that “if it’s not gonna cost the taxpayers one penny, I’m for it.”

Richmond City Councilwoman Reva Trammel (left) is a prominent supporter of the casino proposal. (Photo: Jakob Cordes/WRIC)

For supporters of the casino, that’s a selling point that differentiates it from the controversial Navy Hill plan. The Navy Hill deal would have required the city to issue hundreds of millions in bonds paid for with theoretical future tax revenues.

The casino proposal that voters will decide on the Nov. 2 election explicitly states that Richmond will “not provide any abatements, exemptions, subsidies, incentives, rebates, financing, financial waivers, or any other type of funding or tax relief” for the project.

Location, Location, Location

“If it doesn’t happen here it’ll end up somewhere else – the General Assembly will not let central Virginia go without a casino.”

Alfred C. Liggins, III, CEO of urban one

The Urban One plan was one of three proposals considered as finalists by Richmond City Council. In remarks at the community meeting, Liggins said part of the reason Urban One’s plan was chosen was because of its location in an industrial area in Richmond’s 8th council district.

According to Liggins, the land, which is currently owned by the Phillip Morris Company, is a “great place to put it where it’s not gonna get in anybody’s way.”

He and Trammell said that the project would draw the attention of city services to the area, which Trammell said has long been neglected.

Liggins insisted it was not a question of whether a casino would be built in the region – but whether it would be in the City of Richmond.

“If it doesn’t happen here it’ll end up somewhere else – the General Assembly will not let central Virginia go without a casino,” he said.

Economic Justice?

One of the selling points Liggins repeatedly emphasized was a slate of economic benefits the casino would bring to locals like those in attendance at the community meeting.

He pointed specifically to a clause in their agreement with Richmond that would require at least 40 percent of construction contracts to be granted to “minority business enterprises” and another that would require 60 percent of casino workers to be Richmond residents.

But there’s a catch – an indemnity clause that states the city “shall in no way or in any manner attempt
to influence or otherwise control Owner’s performance” of clauses related to hiring practices. That raises the question of how, exactly, the city will be able to enforce its own agreement with Urban One.

And while Liggins repeatedly emphasized the importance of Black ownership of Urban One, prominent Richmond Black activists have spoken out against the proposal.

On Race Capitol, a community radio show on WRIR 97.3 FM hosted by Chelsea Higgs Wise, Nomi Isaac and Kalia Harris, former city council candidate Allan-Charles Chipman said the city has already passed over Southside when distributing American Rescue Plan funding, so it’s hard to believe casino revenues will be any different, “If people care about Southside in all of this, say it with your treasury chest.”

Chipman argued that while tax revenue will be good for the city’s balance books, the local effects might not be so sunny.

“Research actually shows that casinos can lower property values up to fifteen percent of what’s surrounding there as well,” he said. “And so, when people were saying ‘build it over there’ and all that other racist stuff you were seeing, the city actually decided to do that.”

Fait Accompli

Urban One has its own, much wider radio presence. The company owns radio stations in major cities up and down the East Coast, reaching 15 million weekly listeners, according to the company’s website.

One of those stations is 99.3 KISS FM, a Richmond “R&B and Classic Soul” station, which boosts the casino on its webpage with a direct link to the company’s campaign site and stories promoting the casino.

A screenshot of the KISS FM homepage showing a banner link to the casino’s website and story promoting the casino.

News One, the company’s journalism arm, has frequently praised the proposal, showcasing support from figures such as the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Additionally, 8News reported earlier this year that Liggins and ONE Casino investors had been prominent donors both to the campaign of Mayor Levar Stoney and to members of the General Assembly.

All of that may have given Liggins reason to be confident that voters will approve the casino in November. One sign of that confidence is his claim at the community meeting that hiring has already begun, “We had a job fair today, vendor fair yesterday.”

The referendum question will appear on the ballot for voters registered in Richmond, whether voting in-person on Nov. 2, at early voting locations prior to Oct. 31, or by mail-in ballot.

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