Richmond’s new casino vote faces legal challenge

ABC 8 News
Richmond’s new casino vote faces legal challenge
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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A nonprofit running charitable gaming at a Richmond bingo hall is trying to block the city’s latest effort to bring a casino resort to Southside.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge signed an order in late July to allow the city’s top election administrator to add a citywide referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot asking voters if they want a casino. In 2021, voters narrowly rejected Richmond’s first casino pitch.

Richmond Lodge No. 1 of the Good Lions, Inc., which holds charitable gaming twice a week at Pop’s Bingo World, filed motions on Aug. 11 to intervene – or enter the proceeding – and ask a judge to reverse the court’s decision for the voter referendum.

“Presently, the only casino gaming permitted in Richmond is charitable gaming and this sole right has helped Good Lions and similar nonprofit organizations use the proceeds from gaming to improve the community,” the motion reads. “This charitable income will either disappear entirely or be seriously undermined should the referendum move forward and be successful.”

Good Lions’ motion asking the court to reconsider its order allowing the question to be on the ballot argues, among other claims, the Richmond City Council violated the Virginia Constitution by not allowing a complete public bidding process for the latest project.

“By any interpretation, the actions of the City Council are inconsistent with the Constitution’s explicit requirement that a fair and honest, open, and accountable bid process be held to establish a franchise like the one at issue,” the filing reads.  

State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), whose law firm is representing the Good Lions, told 8News the judge would first have to weigh whether the nonprofit has legal standing to join the petition before considering the motion to block the ballot referendum.  

A spokesperson for the City did not respond to a request for comment Friday. Laura K. Drewry, Richmond’s City Attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Richmond has continued to push for a casino project since its first push in 2021 was voted down and a state budget provision kept a second referendum off the 2022 ballot. The City Council approved an updated casino resort proposal in June to give Urban One — with a partner — another chance at being the city’s casino gaming operator.

The July 25 court order came after the Virginia Lottery approved a preliminary application from the City and RVA Entertainment Holdings – a joint venture of Urban One Inc. and Churchill Downs – for casino gambling at a proposed $562 million development in South Richmond.

Urban One is a Maryland-based media conglomerate that owns several radio stations across the country, and television networks, including TV One. Churchill Downs owns and operates horse tracks — including the home of the Kentucky Derby — and casinos in the U.S.

The Good Lions’ court filing argues that the new project, despite Urban One’s involvement, is different than the one from 2021, claiming the operator’s “presently opaque” ownership structure has left questions about its bid’s strength.

Sen. Petersen told 8News in a brief phone interview Monday that his clients believe the city “basically recycled the 2021 choice.”

“The 2023 bid unilaterally accepted by the Council without a public bidding process is a different bid, in a different referendum, in a different city, and by a fundamentally different corporation,” the Aug. 11 court filing asserts.

Developers said the project, if given the green light by voters, would create 1,300 new jobs and include a luxury hotel, entertainment venues, a casino, a sportsbook, restaurants and a 55-acre park.

Richmond would receive one-time upfront payments of $26.5 million for the project and the casino resort would be built at 2001 Walmsley Boulevard and 4700 Trenton Avenue, according to the proposal.

In 2022, Richmond was granted a court order for a second referendum that was ultimately removed after language in the budget kept it from being added to the ballot.

While Richmond has been granted another court order, the budget could again derail its hopes for a casino in the city as negotiators have told 8News they are still considering how to move forward with Virginia’s casino projects.

If the city’s effort survives legal challenges and a potential budget provision, voters will have the final say on if they want a Richmond casino this November.

Early voting for the Nov. 7 state elections begins Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 4.