RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A sparse crowd gathered in and around a picnic shelter in Richmond’s Bryan Park on Tuesday evening for the first of three “listening tour” events hosted by Bally’s Corporation.
Representatives for the gaming company pitched their $650 million investment for a casino resort in South Richmond while community members pressed them on how the project has moved forward and its possible impact on wetlands and traffic in the area.
Bally’s Corp, a casino developer operating 11 in the U.S., is proposing a casino resort with a hotel on a 61-acre property north of Powhite Parkway and to the east of Chippenham Parkway in South Side. It is among the remaining three proposals for the city to consider before voters decide whether they want a casino in Richmond in November.
Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation granting five cities the opportunity to have casino gambling. An evaluation panel will select one of the last three projects and the city council will then approve or reject the proposal. In the end, city residents will decide whether to green light a casino with a referendum on the November ballot.
Those who attended Tuesday’s listening tour event made it clear to Bally’s representatives that they did not want the project near where they live, saying that a casino resort would disrupt wetlands in the area and cause major traffic issues. Many expressed broader concerns about gambling and gambling addiction.
Jack Johnson said he lives near the proposed location for Bally’s project and that he came out to Bryan Park Tuesday to hear what the company had to say. “I didn’t hear that much at all to be honest,” Johnson said, admitting he’s been skeptical of the proposal from the beginning.
Johnson told 8News he believes a casino could bring out and exacerbate crime in the city, as well as give those struggling with gambling addiction an easy opportunity to make poor decisions.
“Does anyone want that vice around where they live,” Johnson asked rhetorically after the meeting was wrapped up.
Richmond City Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who represents the city’s 4th District where Bally’s hopes to build its casino, expressed strong opposition to the effort in a letter sent to the casino evaluation panel on March 26. In her letter, Larson states she had not yet met with Bally’s and gave no input before hearing about the proposal through the media.
On Wednesday, Larson noted that Bally’s listening tour was not located in the 4th District, an issue that community members picked up on during Tuesday’s event.
“It’s puzzling to me that they are having a listening tour so far along into the process,” Larson said in an interview. “Also, could they have not had one closer. They really are on the other side of the city.”
Bally’s held its second listening tour event at Battery Park at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and has another scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Chimborazo Park.
“This listening tour is about hearing what the entire city is saying about a casino development. It’s not just one district,” Matt Sodl, a financial advisor for Bally’s, said in an interview Tuesday before the listening tour event at Bryan Park. “We are absolutely open to hearing the residents of District 4 and we’ve been engaging with many of them over the last couple of days on these tele-town halls and prepare to continue to listen and hear them.”
Sodl and Michael Monty, the senior project manager for Bally’s Richmond Casino Resort, pitched the proposal as a job creator for the city — Bally’s predicts the project would create 4,300 construction jobs and over 2,000 permanent positions — and took several questions from city residents during Tuesday’s event.
People asked about how the casino project would protect the wetlands in the area and prevent traffic to build up if the proposal gets approved. Monty stressed that Bally’s had already made changes to ensure that there will be no access to the casino resort from Forest Hill Avenue.
“We believe the beauty of the property will remain intact,” Willie Lanier, an investor providing real estate and construction consultation to Bally’s, told 8News on Tuesday. “We believe that once we complete our development here, the wetlands will be fully protected and our development will operate separate from the wetlands.” Lanier added he believes there will be a “nice integration” for people to experience the casino resort and wetlands.
In the interview before Tuesday’s event, Sodl talked about the second site Bally’s pitched to the city — a vacant plot on Midlothian Turnpike.
“We think both sites can accomplish a lot. In fact, we think the Midlothian site could be an opportunity to put more money back in the community,” Sodl told 8News. “We put that on the table for the city. They have directed us that the Stratford Hills site is the one they would consider.”
Sodl told the crowd Tuesday that the city never gave Bally’s a reason for the decision. On Wednesday, Leonard Sledge, the director of the city’s Department of Economic Development, made it clear that groups vying for a casino would only be allowed to propose one site.
“The city has been consistent throughout the Resort Casino RFQ/P process in its evaluation of a single site submitted by each respondent to the RFQ/P. The operator and site go hand in hand,” Sledge said in his statement.
Stay with 8News for updates.