Senate subcommittee sides with Petersburg on casino referendum legislation

RICHMOND — Petersburg's quest to be Virginia's fifth casino host cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday but not before the city was chided by a lawmaker over its lack of transparency in choosing its gambling partner.

After sitting through about an hour of testimony in a state Capitol conference room, a Senate General Laws and Technology subcommittee voted 7-2 to recommend that the full committee support legislation that would allow Petersburg to hold a referendum on bringing a casino resort to its Wagner Road area. If the committee agrees at its meeting next week, that pushes the issue to the Senate floor, which the bill's chief patron believes it could pass.

For proponents, the vote is significant because similar legislation last year did not make it through the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee, but the bill advanced Thursday does contain a fiscal impact statement which means a possible return visit to that panel. However, that statement said the legislation itself will not affect current state expenditures because money to operate five casinos in Virginia has already been appropriated.

For opponents, primarily the city of Richmond whose failure to pass a 2021 casino referendum opened the door for Petersburg's consideration, the focus likely shifts to the House of Delegates. Identically worded legislation is set to be heard Tuesday in a House General Laws subcommittee. Richmond is fighting the Petersburg referendum bill and is trying to get it amended to call for casinos in both cities.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County, was one of two Democrats — Mamie Locke of Hampton was the other — to cast the dissenting votes. McPike said he had concerns that Petersburg did not follow the rules of the Virginia Public Procurement Act when it chose The Cordish Companies, a Maryland-based developer and owner of the Live! casino brand.

City officials said last year that several top casino vendors, such as Bally's Park Place and MGM, had inquired about possibly locating to Petersburg. City Council tasked lobbyist Lisa Speller to handle the queries and recommend a partner. Seven companies reportedly were vetted by Speller, and Cordish was recommended.

In an ironic twist, Speller resigned her contract with Petersburg last week citing differences with the city over the direction of the casino campaign.

"Last year when we heard this bill, we were told by you that Petersburg was going to be much more open with letting people know what was going on, and you didn't," McPike told bill patron Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Chesterfield. " A gaming license is highly prized. It has to be done on a higher standard and in the daylight."

Morrissey countered that three of the four cities chosen for casinos followed similar processes that Petersburg did. After the meeting, Morrissey was asked about McPike's statement, and he chalked it up to political pressure.

"He was all for this two months ago. He said, 'I'm with you,'" Morrissey said, "until he got a primary challenger.

Both McPike and Locke were immediately unavailable for comment after the vote.

Both sides present their cases

The Petersburg-vs.-Richmond dynamic of the casino battle was on full display during subcommittee testimony. Both proponents and opponents paraded speakers to the podium over the space of an hour or so, with each pleading the reasons why central Virginia's only casino should be in Petersburg or why Richmond deserves a do-over of the referendum that failed by 1,500 votes 14 months ago.

Some of the testimony featured dueling statements from two unions with a heavy presence in the hospitality industry. The Seafarers Entertainment and Allied Trades Union (SEATU) filled practically two rows of seats in supporting the Petersburg casino, while UNITE HERE, with membership in the food service at Virginia Commonwealth University, The College of William & Mary, and the MGM National Harbor resort in suburban Washington, D.C., claimed that Cordish's claims of an average $60,000 annual wage for its employees was inflated.

Wearing their red shirts, UNITE HERE stood against the walls of the conference room to support the roughly dozen or so of their brethren who spoke against the Morrissey bill.

Also joining the ranks of the opposition were former Petersburg NAACP president Dr. Lafayette Jefferson and Pastor Belinda Baugh.

Jefferson, who got into a scuffle with Morrissey when the two met last February to discuss the casino, was the first to bring up the procurement issue that McPike later referenced in his opposition. Jefferson cited "lies and manipulation" by Morrissey and Petersburg leaders in deciding on Cordish, and also said the company commissioned by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission to study the feasibility of a Petersburg casino should never have been picked because it was based in Las Vegas.

Baugh, a Petersburg-based community advocate who pastors New Divine Worship Center, mentioned the city's issues with gun violence, homelessness, and high levels of blight and unhealthiness. The promise of a new casino will not solve those problems.

"We are a broken city," Baugh said, adding that while a casino might be good for the city's economic base, "it's just not time yet."

Morrissey, who led the supporters, touted the proposed 600,000-square foot Live! Casino and Hotel Virginia as the best of all the five casinos set for the state. The casino is expected to be the centerpiece of a $1.4 billion development on Wagner Road that will include retail, office and residential space.

He praised Cordish's track records of successful developments in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. Cordish has 20 Live! branded casinos, which Morrissey said shows they know what they are doing. He drew comparison to Richmond's proposed $565 million One Casino + Resort, which would be the first venture into the gambling business for media company Urban One, claiming that familiarity breeds success.

"If I have a child who needed a heart operation, I'm going to the cardiologist who's done a thousand heart operations, not the first one," he said. "[Cordish has] the experience, and that's why quality is important."

Retired college professor Yvette Robinson was exuberant in her support of the project, telling the subpanel members she is hoping for "faith, hope and a lot of your charity" in approving the project.

The proponent parade also included members of the Petersburg Economic Development Authority, Petersburg's government staff and other citizens. Notably missing were local elected officials such as Mayor Sam Parham, who along with Morrissey has been a leading drum major for the project.

It was unknown if his absence was by design so that others from the city could extol the casino virtues. A text message left with Petersburg spokesperson Joanne Williams seeking comment on the no-show has not yet been returned.

Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax County and John Bell of Loudoun both noted that the subcommittee's mission Thursday was to decide whether Petersburg should get the referendum by itself or whether both Petersburg and Richmond could vote on it. Bell said the subcommittee "can get very easily distracted" over the other issues that orbit the legislation such as project size and scope.

"I want to keep us focused on the decision and not debate which is the best group," Boysko said.

What's next?

Morrissey said after the meeting that the subcommittee vote in Petersburg's favor was a good first step in a long road to possible passage.

"We got lots to do," he said, noting next week's full committee vote.

Richmond leaders who had hoped that the subcommittee would have sided with that portion of the JLARC report about how both their city and Petersburg could host casinos obviously were dejected. Still, one Richmond City Council member clung to hope that the pendulum would swing in their favor by the end of the legislative session next month.

"I'm so disappointed in the Senate," said Councilor Reva Trammell, in whose 8th District was where the One Casino was going. She said she works in her district seven days a week and she sees how much people still want the casino.

Richmond had blamed the 2021 referendum defeat on a misunderstanding of the One Casino blueprint. At the time of the vote, the city said that incorrect information about the casino's short- and long-term effects on the 8th District and the city as a whole had been disseminated. Since then, city leaders said, updated facts have come to light, which makes the referendum redo so valuable.

Subcommittee member Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, claimed it was a fact in politics that the votes do not always go as one hoped they would, "but we live with the results of that election." He said he supported Petersburg's referendum.

Other senators voting in favor of the legislation were Democrat Monty Mason of Williamsburg; and Republicans Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County, Todd Pillion of Washington County and Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County.

Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie County, is carrying the casino legislation in the House.

Read the Senate version of the legislation here and the House version here.

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Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at or on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.

This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Senate subcommittee votes to advance Petersburg casino referendum bill