May 11, 2021 News & Features » Cover Story

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Gold Rush 

Richmond’s flirtation with two casinos has all the makings of an epic movie with voters deciding the ending.

click to enlarge cover19_casionos_no_headlines.jpg

It’s the stuff of a Hollywood movie. Richmond’s future and the fate of its residents might be determined by the new casino that a young and inexperienced mayor decides to place on the ballot this November – and the voters’ reaction to it.

But will this movie be an epic triumph of community unity, a documentary of government gone wrong or a horror movie about how a town gets destroyed by greedy politicians, high-priced lawyers and spin-doctor consultants?

Whatever the genre, we know it will include the inescapable racial tension that is part of city life in America, images of toppled Confederate monuments strewn near a sewage treatment plant. And it will place these elements in the crucible of the General Assembly in Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy and birthplace of Massive Resistance.

Our movie could easily be one of those based-on-a-true-story blockbusters. It checks all the boxes: ambitious and unscrupulous politicians; greedy but earnest business leaders; slick consultants and silk-stockinged lawyers; concerned neighbors, the rich and poor of all races; and an intergenerational array of community activists.

Fundamentally, this is a tale of how rich coal barons Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy in Southwest Virginia  and a few of his friends managed to use a Bristol casino development group’s political action committee to donate more than $600,000 to politicians in both parties to write and rewrite the law and let casinos into Virginia.

It’s also a story, according to residents across the city, about an ambitious young politician who has cynically played companies off one another in the name of negotiation, and in the process, pitted neighborhood against neighborhood with implied accusations of racism, further dividing an already divided city.

click to enlarge A rendering of Live! Casino, a 70,000-square-foot, multi-event space proposed for a 17-acre tract of land at the Movieland site at 1301 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. - LIVE! CASINO & HOTEL RICHMOND
  • Live! Casino & Hotel Richmond
  • A rendering of Live! Casino, a 70,000-square-foot, multi-event space proposed for a 17-acre tract of land at the Movieland site at 1301 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd.

Our movie’s theme is big money: the ways it can manipulate people into believing lies, half-truths, and the desperate lengths to which people of all races will go to chase dreams of easy money. Cue the images of experts arguing and headlines from articles about the dangers of gambling addiction and the ways property values are impacted by casinos.

The opening scenes should juxtapose the glitziness of roulette wheels, slot machines, fancy food, liquor, beautiful men in tuxedos and women in gorgeous gowns with the images of a young mother, Sharnez Hill, and her 3-month-old baby, Neziah, recently caught in a crossfire and gunned down over some disagreement that started in an internet chat room.

It should show the grief-stricken loved ones mourning the senseless deaths of young people as well as the faces of students in our dilapidated Richmond Public Schools, gratefully receiving home deliveries of food because more than one out of four live at or below the poverty level. It also should show the hovels and tents that pass for homes and the faces of homeless children and adults. 

And it should include the faces of many demonstrators – young, old, male, female, multiracial – who have taken to the streets protesting the idea of a casino, ringing cowbells, flashing colorful signs, and asking drivers to honk if they agree with “No! Casino!”

Sit back with your popcorn, there’s a lot going on. Keep those hankies handy.

In addition to tension, any good movie needs potent dialogue and a sense of authenticity and authority.

Just listen to the passion of Melissa Loughridge Savenko, a Richmond real estate agent and an active protester against placing a casino in any neighborhood. 

“Mayor Stoney could have easily told the various casino operators that he wanted to place the casino on the Navy Hill site and that he wanted to be able to take the best deal for the city,” she says. “That way, nobody’s neighborhood would have had to deal with this threat and he could have managed to save some face from the whole Navy Hill debacle.”

“Instead, he deliberately chose a process that would pit neighborhoods against neighborhoods and fan the flames of racial rhetoric,” she adds. “This whole mess is evidence of his inability to lead and, frankly, he should be recalled.” 

Savenko is not alone in this belief. There are countless posts on social media saying the mayor and the city have mishandled the project. More than a few want Stoney recalled.

James Nolan, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, says that as far as Stoney was concerned, “It was entirely the responsibility of the respondents to the RFP to submit a proposal and proposed location. The city did not dictate or recommend any site or restrict any potential operator from a proposal that included city land. What you saw is what we got.”

And what the city got were six proposals, which it has since winnowed down to two. Of the final two proposals, the one from the Cordish Co., “Live!” would be on the Movieland site in North Side and the other, from Urban One, on South Side in the 8th District.

click to enlarge A rendering of One Casino, a 57,000-square-foot event space proposed for an industrial park off Commerce Road in South Side on land owned by Philip Morris USA. - URBAN ONE, INC.
  • Urban One, Inc.
  • A rendering of One Casino, a 57,000-square-foot event space proposed for an industrial park off Commerce Road in South Side on land owned by Philip Morris USA.

When asked why the original suitors didn’t look at the Navy Hill site as a location, representatives of Bally’s, Urban One and Cordish all said that they were told by the city that getting approval for the Navy Hill site would require a vote of seven City Council members and that, given the recent history of the Navy Hill mess, that would never happen.

Consequently, they were told, Navy Hill would be a nonstarter.

North Side resident Pierce Homer, former secretary of transportation for Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and former chairman of the Navy Hill Commission, agrees with Savenko’s questions about why the Navy Hill site was not chosen by the city. Although the commission he chaired helped scuttle the previous project proposed for Navy Hill, Homer says that site would be the “most appropriate location for the casino currently proposed for the Movieland location.”

He is against putting it on the Movieland site because it is absurdly large and not in keeping with the historic nature of the surrounding neighborhoods.

“It is basically the same size as Short Pump Town Center. … It is way too big. But if you were to put it downtown, it would accomplish what many people have wished for downtown Richmond.”

To separate fact from fiction and provide the public with a sense of the developers pushing the remaining two casino proposals, the Richmond Crusade for Voters recently held a program allowing Zed Smith of the Cordish Co. and Alfred Liggans of Urban One to answer the same set of questions put to them by Johnny Walker, a retired AT&T executive who is research chair of the Crusade. Founded in 1953, the group is one of the oldest organizations in the country dedicated to registering Black voters.

click to enlarge Protesters shout at passing cars on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in front of Movieland at Boulevard Square. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Protesters shout at passing cars on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in front of Movieland at Boulevard Square.

Asked for his take away from his questioning of each company representative, Walker concludes: “Cordish had the best proposal hands-down. They were the most professional. They had the best experience, the clearest answers.”  

Walker doesn’t speak to any controversy about potential damage to neighborhoods, but says he is especially impressed by the company’s willingness to commit $100 million up front to building schools in Richmond – and from Smith’s “no-nonsense command of facts.” Walker says he appreciates what Urban One does for the city in terms of radio programming, but he is uncomfortable with its lack of experience in building and operating casinos.

In contrast to vociferous and organized opposition on North Side, with more than a dozen neighborhood associations coming out against a casino there, Councilwoman Reva Trammell and a neighborhood civic association want a casino in the 8th District.

Trammell says she has heard from hundreds of constituents who want Urban One to build its casino on South Side, off Commerce Road on land currently owned by Philip Morris USA.

“We need jobs and development in our part of town,” she says. “If this casino can deliver, we’re all for it.”

Charles Willis, president of the newly renamed Richmond Highway Neighborhood Civic Association, is calling on neighbors and the Richmond community to contact city leaders to support the Urban One project. Willis has been offering to pay residents to pass out flyers supporting the Urban One project and has repeatedly been quoted in the media saying this is the way to “bring tourism and new business to South Richmond.”

Willis and Urban One representatives also say the casino they propose would be the nation’s only “Black-owned casino.” But Urban One, a Washington-based media company, would not be the sole owner. It is partnering with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, owner of the Colonial Downs racetrack and Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, companies that are not Black-owned. Fade out on images of the proposed Urban One site.

Fade up on the tall and athletic Billy McMullen.

A son of Richmond who made it from Carver Elementary to the National Football League, McMullen played for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Minnesota Vikings, the Washington Football Team and Seattle Seahawks. He even played in a Super Bowl.

After his football career, he has become a sought-after motivational speaker and an advocate for children living in poverty. In a recent interview at Movieland, McMullen explains why he thinks a casino can be good for the city.

“My roots are in Jackson Ward, specifically Gilpin Court. I went to school at Carver. My grandmother, my father and my family lived through the destruction of Jackson Ward by the building of Highway 95,” he says. “They had no say and no solution for their own community: A generation of equity destroyed.”

When he first heard that Richmond could get a casino, he thought it might be a great opportunity for the community to come up with its own solutions “to critical problems through a fund from a portion of the casino revenue.”  He says he did his own research and determined that “the Cordish team has done just that.”  Clearly, he’s a true believer.

“Live! Casino & Hotel Richmond will provide a community fund of $200 million in the first 15 years alone to important causes like education and affordable housing.

“What gets me excited is that this fund is run by active community members,” he says. “Who better to answer the needs of the community than the community itself? I’m all about individual and community empowerment and I know the community has its own answers.”

Through his work with the Billy Mac Foundation, he’s been coaching and teaching kids at Carver that they can change their lives. Jerome Legions, who lives in the Carver area and is an active volunteer at the school, has high praise for McMullen and is equally supportive of the Cordish Co. proposal to place a casino at Movieland.

“I’m sorry that so many neighborhood associations have lined up against the proposal,” he says. “The folks in these neighborhoods need to realize that the casino people are not coming into their residential areas. When people leave the casino they’ll be headed to local restaurants, the museums, seeing our city. Billy has checked them out, as have I. They are a high-class operation.”  

click to enlarge An anti-casino sign is posted on Forest Hill Avenue. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • An anti-casino sign is posted on Forest Hill Avenue.

But as one angry resident, who wished to remain anonymous, says:

“If your neighbor proposes a toxic waste dump for his property, you don’t say, ‘That’s OK, so long as it’s not on my property.’ Development on any property can affect all property near it. Cordish’s proposal is so out of keeping with the 100- year-old neighborhoods nearby, it would destroy them. That choice could be Stoney’s Katrina.”

For now, our movie remains in production. Our last edited scene involves John Travis, a graduate of Virginia Union University and a professor at Virginia State University.

“If we really care about children, we need to avoid exposing our young people to the casinos that prey upon poor people and nurture the idea you can get something for nothing,” he says.

Travis, a father of two and a former Richmond Public School teacher, adds “we need to grow children willing to work hard to change their lives and not waste money on get rich quick gambling. Hard work is the only real way up in life.”

The interesting part? How this movie ends is up to us.

Come November, regardless of which casino Stoney chooses to place on the ballot, the voters will have the last word.

We’ll have the power to bring a casino to our city. Or simply to say “no.”


Company Detail

LIVE! Casino
110 Year - Developer and Operator of 100+ Casino Resorts, Restaurants, Entertainment Districts, Coworking Spaces, Luxury Residential, Retail, Mixed-Use, Sports-Anchored and Luxury Hotel Destinations

Privately Owned, Family Company

ONE Casino
Urban One, Inc. (formerly Radio One) is a Silver Spring, Maryland-based American media conglomerate. Founded in 1980 by Cathy Hughes, the company primarily operates media properties targeting African Americans. It is the largest African-American-owned broadcasting company in the United States, operating 55 radio stations and majority-owning the syndicator Reach Media, as well as its digital arm Interactive One and the cable network TV One.

Company Experience

LIVE! Casino

  • Casinos Built - SIX
  • Luxury Hotels Built - SEVEN
  • Top 10 U.S. Grossing Casinos Developed - THREE
  • Urban Land Institute Awards - SEVEN

ONE Casino

  • Casinos Built - NONE
  • Luxury Hotels Built - NONE
  • Top 10 U.S. Grossing Casinos Developed - NONE
  • Urban Land Institute Awards - NONE

Project Details

LIVE! Casino

  • $610 Million project
  • Located in Richmond 300 Entertainment District
  • 4,000-capacity live entertainment venue
  • 70,000 square feet of multi-use event space
  • 18 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues featuring local and regional favorites
  • 300 luxury hotel rooms (with future expansion), including 30 suites, spa and wellness center
  • 2,000 slot machines, 120 table games, poker room and sports book
  • 5 acre Festival lawn for community gatherings, festivals and special events
  • Multiplex Movie Theater
  • Payment of Prevailing Wage and committment to goal of 50% utilization of local residents during construction
  • Broadest Community Benefits Plan, Proximity and public transportation access to Unemployment Population

ONE Casino

  • $600 Million project, 2.9 Million square feet of development
  • Industrial Park
  • 3,000-capacity live entertainment venue in partnership with Live Nation, featuring 200 shows annually
  • 57,000 square feet of entertainment and convention space
  • 15 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues featuring local restaurateurs.
  • 250 room hotel with ability to expand to 600
  • 2,000 slot machines, 110 table games, poker room and sports book
  • 55 acre park and green space
  • TV and Radio Production Studio
  • 40% Union Labor Goal and Payment of Prevailing Wage during Construction
  • Neighborhood support for project

Project Financing Details

LIVE! Casino

  • Equity Investment = $360 million
  • Minority investment = $180 million (Largest Minority Equity Investment in a project in the history of Virginia)
  • 50% Non Developer Minority Ownership
  • Debt Financing = $250 million (commitment to build 100% Equity if needed)

ONE Casino

  • Equity Investment = $90 million
  • Minority investment = $9 million
  • 10% Non Developer Minority Ownership
  • Debt Financing = $510 million

Economic Benefits

LIVE! Casino

  • $9.1 Billion economic stimulus over 15 years (including construction)
  • $616 Million in gaming tax revenue over 15 years to city
  • $803 Million in community benefits over 15 years to assist neighborhoods and nonprofits
  • Local businesses included in Nationally Accredited Live! Rewards Program Generating $30 Million in Annual Revenues
  • $70 Million of advertising/marketing spend promoting Richmond Tourism

ONE Casino

  • $9 Billion economic stimulus over 15 years
  • $515 Million in gaming tax revenue over 15 years to city
  • $769 Million in community benefits and additional city revenues over 15 years.
  • $25 Million in Advertising Credit to Promote Richmond Initiatives
  • $50 Million in Television Production Spend

Minority Participation

LIVE! Casino

  • $180 million minority equity investment totaling 50% ownership
  • 40% MBE contract spending goal
  • 55% Minimum Minority Hiring Goal

ONE Casino

  • Black-owned casino with 50+ minority and local investors
  • 40% MBE contract spending goal
  • 50% Minority Hiring Goal

Funding for Community Organizations

LIVE! Casino

  • $130 Million towards Workforce Development, Affordable Housing, Education, Parks and Recreation, Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center, Neighborhood Improvements, and other priorities as directed by a Community Advisory Committee. (over 15 years)
  • 5 acre Festival lawn for community gatherings, festivals and special events
  • $40 Million to Virginia Hispanic African American Alliance for scholarships for disadvantaged students at Virginia Union University (over 15 years)
  • $30 Million to Community Foundation for Greater Richmond (over 15 years)
  • Training - At least 70% of 2,000 resort employees from city and surrounding areas.
  • Mentoring and upward mobility programs
  • Internship programs available in gaming, hospitality, culinary and other positions TBD.

ONE Casino

  • $4 Million commitment to the Office of Community Wealth Building, $2.5 Million to Virginia Union University, $1.5 Million to Reynolds Community College and $300,000 to Re-Entry Programs with Project Give Back to Communtiy and Help Me Help You Foundation for workforce development
  • $3 Million commitment to Southside Community Development & Housing Corporation, Better Housing Coalition and the Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity
  • ONE is developing a 55 acre on-site public park
  • $2.5 Million to Richmond Public Schools and $1 Million to Communities in Schools
  • $1.5 Million to the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia
  • $300,000 to the Metropolitan Business League
  • $90,000 to Elegba Folklore Society
  • Workforce development plan designed to train and source employees from the city and surrounding communities.
  • Mentoring and upward mobility programs
  • Internship programs available in gaming, hospitality, culinary and other positions TBD.

Employment

LIVE! Casino

  • 5,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs
  • $15 per hour minimum wage
  • $60,000 average wage/benefits included
  • Quarterly Bonuses to all Employees
  • Tuition reimbursement and other programs through Virginia Union University, area community colleges and vocational schools to support local employment and career advancement
  • Robust employee health care and benefits program including comprehensive health insurance and onsite health clinic for team members and their families to use free of charge, free health screenings and free flu shots every year

ONE Casino

  • 2,600 permanent jobs
  • $15 per hour minimum wage
  • $55,000 average wage/benefits included
  • Employee Profit Sharing
  • Comprehensive benefits plan including but not limited to health, dental, vision and 401(k).

Information independently provided by each company and verified as current as of May 1, 2021.

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