RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — State lawmakers are slowing down another possible casino in Virginia and giving a new city a chance to gamble.
The bipartisan budget deal that passed out of the General Assembly on Wednesday does more than spend money. It throws a wrench in Richmond’s timeline for a second casino vote and gives Petersburg an opportunity to win the approval of lawmakers next year.
Stakeholders in Richmond are now hinting at a possible lawsuit while leaders in Petersburg are taking a victory lap.
“This is some of the greatest news we have had here in years,” Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham said during a press conference on Thursday morning. “This is about transforming the city of Petersburg.”
Richmond voters rejected a casino proposal during last year’s election. Now, the state budget seeks to prevent the city from holding a second referendum until Nov. 1, 2023, one year later than leaders had previously planned. The budget also says the Virginia Lottery can’t grant Richmond’s development an initial casino license until after Nov. 1, 2023.
The wait will allow the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study a competing site in Petersburg, as was done with other host cities. This would pave the way for possible approval in the General Assembly during the 2023 legislative session. Senator Joe Morrissey plans to introduce a bill to make sure Petersburg is awarded the project over Richmond.
“I would say respectfully to the leaders in Richmond that it is time for you to move on,” Morrissey said at the press conference.
The compromise is now being reviewed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who will have an opportunity to make changes. Morrissey said he’s confident that Youngkin will support Petersburg but a spokesperson for the Governor declined to comment on specifics.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Delegate Barry Knight said the budget language was added to give Richmond a “cooling off period” and to “level the playing field” for Petersburg. Knight said the General Assembly is unlikely to let two more casinos move forward.
“I double that very seriously. The original casino bill said five casinos. We like to spread the casinos out,” Knight said in an interview on Monday.
The fight comes as four other casino projects are ahead of the game. In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law allowing five “economically distressed” localities in Virginia to hold ballot referendums for casinos. Voters in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol overwhelmingly approved projects later that year while Richmonders rejected a proposal in 2021.
Virginia’s first temporary casino is due to open next month in Bristol. Developers in Norfolk are discussing a similar option. Meanwhile, construction is well underway in Portsmouth with plans to open in early 2023.
Morrissey said he’s not concerned with Petersburg’s competition.
“It will be a destination spot on the east coast,” Morrissey said.
Urban ONE, Richmond’s project partner for ONE Resort + Casino, is now hinting a lawsuit could be on the horizon to make sure a second vote can happen later this year as planned. In a statement on Thursday responding to the General Assembly’s actions, Urban ONE said the budget language is unconstitutional and is in conflict with a recent court order that greenlighted a second referendum in November of 2022.
“The proposed budget language would unlawfully deny Richmonders the opportunity to vote on this critical economic development project and would undermine the authority of both the judicial and executive branches,” Urban ONE’s statement said. “We will partner with the City of Richmond, including through litigation, to ensure that the people of Richmond have the final say on what happens in their community and that the rule of law is protected.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also responded in a statement, saying the city is weighing its legal options.
“We’re disappointed the Virginia General Assembly has amended the state budget in a way that will deliberately harm the City of Richmond by denying economic opportunities for its residents,” Stoney said.
Asked about the possibility of a lawsuit, Morrissey took aim at Stoney.
“It wouldn’t be the first time that he has wasted City of Richmond funds to fight a losing battle. We are going to win if it goes to court,” Morrissey said.
Unlike Richmond, Petersburg has yet to choose a developer. Morrissey insisted that the legislative process has not delayed the search and that interested partners are “busting down the door.”
Mayor Parham said Urban ONE is not among them but, pending General Assembly approval, he intends to have an operator selected before a possible 2023 referendum in Petersburg.
Both Morrissey and Parham have been critical of the Urban ONE, as well as Richmond’s approach to selecting them as a partner. Morrissey has accused city leaders of rigging the process from the start. He suggested Urban ONE tried to do the same in Petersburg.
“The other half a dozen casino operators that have been here are all about having a fair process, being able to compete here in Petersburg and they have really been sensitive to the needs in our city…we didn’t get that type of support from Urban ONE,” Parham said.
This is a developing story. Stay with 8News for updates.