Less than three months after voters narrowly rejected a proposed casino in Richmond, city councilmembers decided Monday to ask them to reconsider, this time with a promise to cut the real estate tax rate as a sweetener.
The council voted 8-1 to revive the city’s arrangement with developer Urban One and put a second referendum on the ballot this fall on its proposed One Casino + Resort on the Southside.
A majority of councilmembers agreed at last night’s meeting that the $565 million proposal is too good of a deal to pass up, contending that Urban One’s camp didn’t show all their cards the first time around – specifically, details of the project’s impacts on the city.
Katherine Jordan of the Second District was the sole dissenter in the council vote, which authorizes the city to petition the circuit court to put the same question on the ballot this November. Voters rejected the first proposal in November with 51.4 percent against the project.
What would be different this time, councilmembers said, is that more details would be shared as to how the project would benefit the city specifically, through economic impacts, job creation and other effects.
Just prior to the meeting, the city issued a release listing those impacts, including a commitment to a 2 cent reduction in the city real estate tax rate, and $560 million in capital investment specifically to Richmond Public Schools and city projects. That’s if the second referendum passes. Urban One also had committed to pay the city $25 million upfront, and the project was projected to create 1,500 permanent jobs and 3,000 construction jobs.
Councilmembers also stressed that the project would not involve financial commitments from the city and contended that many voters were misinformed that they would be helping to pay for it. Council President Cynthia Newbille said that would not be the case.
“This is one of the rare occasions where there is an economic development project before this city with zero city investment and 100 percent city return and city benefit,” said Newbille, who represents the Seventh District.
Responding to arguments from some speakers in a public hearing that a second referendum would be undemocratic and going against the will of voters, Newbille added, “How many times have we taken legislation back, year after year, to try to get an improved outcome for our citizens and our city?
“I do hear the concerns, but I do in this instance absolutely support this opportunity.”
About 20 people spoke at the hearing, with half in support of a second referendum and half against. The hearing and meeting were held virtually, the first time since July that the council has met virtually for a regular session. Councilmember Kristen Nye (formerly Larson) said the move was made in light of the surge in cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
Allan-Charles Chipman, a Sixth District resident who ran for council in 2020, called a second vote this November “both an anti-democratic recall referendum and an act of voter suppression.”
“The passage of this legislation would defy the expressed will of the people of Richmond,” Chipman said. “While double or nothing is an acceptable tool for someone who lost a bet in a casino, double or nothing is not an acceptable option for the members of this body who lost a bet on a casino.”
Third District resident Debbie Rowe said councilmembers voted last year to move that referendum forward on the basis of letting the people decide. “Well, we did,” she said, “and a majority of city voters said no.”
Councilmember Jordan, who was likewise the sole dissenter in that vote, said after Monday’s hearing that she hopes the project can be a success, but she wouldn’t vote to support it.
“I realize I’m the outlier. That’s not a role I like, but I think we all have to vote our conscience,” Jordan said. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope the concerns are unfounded and this ends up being an amazing project. Certainly, there are a lot of wonderful things about it. I just have my personal reservations.”
Jordan added, “I also would say that if it had passed and the opposition was pushing for a revote, I wouldn’t have supported that either.”
Supporters in the hearing included Mark Hourigan, CEO of local contracting and construction firm Hourigan, who described the project as vital to Richmond’s economic vitality and ability to provide quality-of-life services to citizens.
“Our city has missed several opportunities recently to get the kind of revenue these services need, and I don’t want to see it happen again,” Hourigan said. “There is simply no other economic development deal that provides this kind of upside with virtually no cost or downside risk to the city.”
Urban One co-owner Alfred Liggins also spoke at the hearing, stating the casino would be one part of a larger entertainment complex to include dining, a four-star hotel and a sound stage to benefit film and TV production in the region.
On the issue of a second vote, Liggins said, “Many referendums are reheard, particularly if the project and the benefits of the project have changed. I applaud the administration and council for starting the discussion tonight on the main issue I heard from people of where the dollars are actually going, who was going to benefit.”
Councilmembers also responded to the argument that a second vote would be undemocratic.
“Is this undemocratic? No,” said Michael Jones of the Ninth District. “We are following the democratic process. We are well within the confines of the law, and I believe we should move in accordance to that.”
Added Andreas Addison of the First District: “Referendums happen on cycle and repeat. They are recalled again all across the country. It is not undemocratic. It is actually part of the process of making things better.”
Urban One, a media company based in Maryland, proposed the 300,000-square-foot complex on land they planned to purchase from Philip Morris at 2001 Walmsley Blvd. The casino would be managed by Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, which owns Colonial Downs and the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium locations in Richmond and across the state.
Gwendolyn Boatright, a resident of the Eighth District where the project would be built, said she voted against the casino in November but would support it based on what she’s learned about the project since.
“I was one of the ones who was among the 51 percent. My thought process was that we had Rosie’s and we do not need another gambling casino,” Boatright said, adding that she convinced her son to vote against it as well.
Having learned about the proposed tax reduction and other details, Boatright said, “If I had to vote all over again, I would vote yes and convince my son to do the same.”
Eighth District councilmember Reva Trammell led the council in requesting a second referendum, which coincides with a competing effort from state Sen. Joe Morrissey to prevent the do-over and add Petersburg as an eligible host city for a casino, rather than Richmond.