Voters place their bets – or rather, ballots – on a casino to energize their economy.
DANVILLE-Voters in four Virginia cities announced Tuesday that they want a casino. By significant majorities, Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth each approved referendums to move forward with casino projects.
This isn’t a new idea. In fact, voters first became aware of the possibility in 2019, when the General Assembly took its first step toward pursuing gambling in the Commonwealth. At that point, five Virginia municipalities had a casino option.
On Nov. 3, four areas took the decision to the voters. There’s also discussion about a casino in Richmond, but city dwellers did not vote on the matter. Richmond delayed its referendum.
What do the plans involve?
In Danville, Caesars Entertainment plans to build a $400 million casino. That includes a 300-room hotel, a 35,000-square-foot conference center and a 2,500-seat entertainment center. Meanwhile in Bristol, the proposal is a bit different. Hard Rock International will take over the vacant Bristol Mall, not even 1,000 feet from the Tennessee border, and turn it into a $400 million casino. That includes 350 hotel rooms, a 20,000-seat outdoor venue and a 2,500-seat indoor entertainment center.
Norfolk’s plan centers around the Pamunkey tribe, as the group would own and operate the facility. Priced at $500 million, it will go along the Elizabeth River, near the Norfolk Tides AAA baseball stadium. Finally in Portsmouth, the $300 million plan would be built near Tidewater Community College, operated by Rush Street Gaming.
As part of the process signed off on by the General Assembly, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission examined the potential in all four cities, along with Richmond. If all five are built, it would generate an estimated $262 million in tax revenue for the state.
Since then, tensions rose in the cities. Billboards went up against the idea, calling it ungodly. Other citizens rallied for the change.
In Danville, some members of the city council publicly supported the idea, while others didn’t. The city’s mayor, Alonzo Jones, remained neutral.
“I wanted to stay out of it. As an elected official, I didn’t want to give a voice one way or the other,” Jones said. “As an elected official, my goal was to put it in the hands of the people and give it to the people and [see] where the people go.”
Others, like a group called Defend Danville, stated their opinions online. While a representative of the organization did not respond to a request for comment by press time, the group’s stance was clear. They do not support a casino in Danville.
The “About” section of the Defend Danville group’s Facebook page states in part, “Defend Danville believes that the casino will do more harm to Danville than good.”
An infographic that Defend Danville created showcased the casino’s pros and cons. Pros included tax revenue and job creation. Cons displayed possibilities like an increased suicide rate, an increased emergency response cost, increased crime and increased social costs.
Jones also spoke about the changes the casino could bring to the city, but not in a negative way.
“I think I honestly don’t know what the cons are. I don’t see them from my end,” Jones said. “It’s something new, it’s something different. It’s something that Danville has never seen before.”
However, the mayor expressed consideration for those in the Schoolfield community, where the casino would plant its roots.
“Especially for those persons who are living in that community, I can understand their reservations because bringing a casino into the community, that’s something Danville has never seen before,” Jones said. “So living in the community, I’m sure there’s some anxiety and concerns of those who live in the community.”
The mayor also noted community concern over an influx of traffic, but said he didn’t expect more than in previous decades.
“The way I look at that is, also we had a mill up there. Dan River Mills was up there for quite some time. For years, actually. And the traffic that Dan River Mills had, I don’t see much difference in regards to the traffic part of it because Dan River Mills hired thousands of people that worked at that facility,” Jones said. “So I can understand some of the reservations of the persons living in that community, but the pros to that is this will enhance their community as well.”
The multimillion-dollar build could bring a windfall to Danville that it hasn’t seen since the turn of the 20th century, when tobacco and textile boomed.
Mayor Jones spoke of upgrades to area schools, as well as more jobs above minimum wage moving to the city.
“The casino [will] bring thousands of jobs, high-paid, $15-an-hour starting pay for some of those jobs, some more than that,” Jones said. “That’s just the ground level jobs.”
There’s also a huge sum of money on the line for the city, should the casino move in.
“We talk about starting off with $20 million given to the city, where the city as a whole, in regards to the entire community, gets to discuss how they want that first $20 million spent,” Jones said. “Where should it go? And there’s a committee form to discuss that, as stated.”
Jones sees this as a way for the entire area to benefit economically.
“The other part of it is to see how we’re continuing to move Danville forward. That area has been in blight for quite some time since the mill left. But to see that area come back to life!” Jones said. “The second part of it is there’s a number of businesses in the community that I personally feel like, that once this casino starts to be built, that it would be a benefit to the number of businesses, small businesses especially, in our community.”
The community speaks
When Kris Dodds Williams moved to Danville to attend Averett University, she discovered a home away from home in Indiana. A Danville resident since the early 2000s, Williams spoke positively about the casino for a couple of reasons.
“I’ve been a Danville ‘by choice’ resident since 2003. I chose to go to school here, raise my family here and work here,” Williams said. “As a theatre performer and educator, I am optimistic about the entertainment and city revenue opportunities that the Caesars Casino will bring to this area.”
Another Danville resident, Michelle Nance, also said she supports the casino.
“I’m for it. Last year, Danville voted to allow gambling inside city limits and approved Rosie’s. At this point, it is not a vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ gambling; it is for the type of establishment that we will receive,” Nance said. “I would rather have a classy, world-class entertainment venue than a cheesy, low-class slots room that does not provide any tourism, revenue or employment opportunities.”
In the long run, a casino in town could bring both positive and negative changes to the city. Either way, voters bet on the chance.
“We [can] call ourselves the Comeback City. This year, we were voted an ‘All-American City.’ Danville has been working hard. We had some tough times. We lost textile, we lost some tobacco factories. Danville has had some really hard times. We have been working hard as a council to revive Danville, to make Danville a Comeback City. This right here [will] add to bringing Danville and pushing Danville back to where it’s been. We haven’t seen a venture this huge that could hit Danville in quite some time,” Jones said. “The other part of that is, I think it does something for the citizens of Danville. It gives a spark to the citizens of Danville: that Danville is not shut down, Danville is open for business.”
According to Jones, one of the most important aspects of the vote is that the decision was in voters’ hands.
“The first pro of it is having the citizens of the council work very tirelessly, working with our friends in Richmond. We wanted to make sure that the pros are that the citizens had a right to give their input and that’s what’s happening today,” Jones said. “The council did not want to make this decision. We wanted it to go to the people. So the pros of this is that this decision [was] made by the people. That’s what council wanted to make sure happened, and today, that’s happening.”
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]