Richmond voters will decide today in a referendum if the Urban ONE Casino + Resort will become the nation's only Black-owned casino.
After Gov. Ralph Northam legalized casino gambling in March 2019, six companies rushed to compete for a spot in Richmond. The casino needs to be approved by the public before construction begins, a condition of the legalization of casinos in Virginia.
“I think there were two things that were particularly unique about our offering,” said Mark Hubbard, spokesman for ONE Casino + Resort. “The first was location.”
The project site for the casino is located at 2001 Walmsley Blvd in South Richmond. It is an industrial area, which meant it faced less opposition than offerings that were close to residential homes, Hubbard said. Additionally, the casino would be easily visible from Interstate 95, which is critical because 78% of the revenue from the casino would be expected to come from outside of the city, according to ONE’s website.
The second reason why Hubbard believed ONE's offering stood out among others was its CEO: Alfred C. Liggins III.
Liggins grew up in poverty, and at one point lived with his mother at a radio station in her newly founded media company Radio One, according to ONE's website. The company soon took off, and in 1997 Liggins succeeded his mother as president and CEO of the company, which would later be renamed Urban ONE.
According to Hubbard, Liggins went on to develop a propensity for gaming and became a 7% shareholder in MGM.
When Virginia officials announced that they were accepting casino proposals, Liggins decided to partner with P2E -- a gaming establishment that would allow him to become a majority shareholder -- thereby making the ONE Casino + Resort the only majority Black-owned and operated casino in the United States if it is approved.
Another key feature of the casino is that it has many non-gaming options. Along with traditional slot machines and table games, ONE Casino + Resort has a 250-room luxury hotel, a theater that would bring in 200 shows per year, partnerships with local restaurants, and a 55-acre park that would be free to the public, according to ONE's website.
A study done by the Convergence Strategy Group reported that the project would produce a guaranteed cash payment of $26.5 million that would go directly to the city, as well as an estimated $500 million in tax revenue over the first 10 years of operation. It would also result in the creation of 1,500 permanent jobs that pay a minimum of $15/hour, according to the study.
“It’s the biggest development in a heck of a long time,” City Councilmember Reva Trammell said. Trammell represents the Eighth District, which includes the potential location of the casino.
Trammel spoke passionately in favor of the project.
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"If you don't want it, don't hurt my people because you don't want it. Just don't come to it," she said.
The casino has also been endorsed by many public figures in Virginia, including eight of nine Richmond City Council members, Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who pitched the idea to the City Council.
Other Richmonders stand divided on the topic.
Richmond for All is one of the multiple nonprofit organizations that oppose the casino. In an interview with The Collegian, Quinton Robbins, the political director of Richmond for All, called casinos extractive by nature and said that they had detrimental effects on other communities across the country.
“What the casino effectively represents is a regressive tax on working people,” Robbins said. “[Casinos] extract wealth out of people's pockets and they export it out of the community. So we may create some jobs, but that's going to come as a result of the direct suffering of those who are living within our community.”
Gambling rates double in neighborhoods with high poverty levels, according to The University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions. In addition, The National Gambling Impact study reported that 1.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, or approximately three million people, suffer from an addiction to gambling.
Robbins also noted the Navy Hill project, an economic development opportunity also championed by Stoney that failed due to lack of public support.
However, a major difference between the two projects is that the Navy Hill development was partially publicly funded, whereas the funding for ONE Casino + Resort would come exclusively from private investors. No taxpayer dollars will be used to subsidize or incentivize the development, according to rva.gov.
Robbins said projects such as Navy Hill and ONE Casino + Resort allowed Stoney to respond to his donors' needs rather than those of the general public. A private investor in ONE Casino + Resort donated $20,000 to Stoney’s campaign through the Black Opportunity Council; Liggins donated $10,000, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. The private investor and Liggins said their donations had no connection to Urban ONE, according to the Times-Dispatch.
Trammell remains hopeful that the referendum will pass.
“I believe in [Liggins]," Trammell said. “It's all on him. He's gonna pay it all and he's gonna deliver. Alfred Liggins is gonna deliver.”
In the last election cycles, casinos in four other Virginia cities were approved via referendum.
The ONE Casino + Resort referendum will only be featured on the ballot of Richmond City voters on Tuesday, not voters in Henrico County.
Contact City & State writer Eliana Neill at email@example.com.
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