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Virginia: Urban One, Richmond postpone second casino referendum to 2023 amid Petersburg's push for own bid


Alfred Liggins, CEO of Urban One, a media company seeking to develop a nearly $600 million casino resort in Richmond, Virginia, has announced that he will focus on promoting a casino referendum there in 2023 instead of this fall. The statements come after he threatened legal action when state lawmakers passed legislation undermining his company’s plans for the city.

The national media conglomerate’s CEO made the announcement at a community meeting in the city district where Urban One is seeking to develop its project. At the Thursday event, he told the audience he has asked Richmond to suspend its plans to hold a second casino referendum this year. The decision is due to the legal situation and uncertainty about whether it could be litigated and resolved before the election process, which begins next month.

After 51% of Richmond voters rejected Urban One’s casino plans last year, the Virginia General Assembly adopted in June a budget featuring a provision that prohibits the city from holding another referendum until 2023. The rule calls for the state to complete a study about the potential economic impact of a casino in Petersburg, a city south of Richmond.

“This has created a legal conflict and a huge cloud of doubt,” Liggins said before an audience of about 100 people on Thursday, according to Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We don’t think that a protracted legal battle is in the best interest of the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia, and also would probably not get decided in time for us to have early voting in late September.”

“We are now focused on winning the Richmond casino referendum in 2023,” Liggins later confirmed in a statement. Though Urban One is an investor in MGM National Harbor in Maryland, the Richmond casino would be the first in which it is a majority owner.

In a statement that same day, the city said it would file a petition to remove the question from the ballot for this year’s election. “Understanding Urban One’s reason, the city stands ready to move the proposed One Casino and Resort forward in 2023,” the announcement reads. 

“This temporary delay will not deter Urban One or the City of Richmond from working together to ensure a bright future for our residents,” the statement claims. Urban One’s plans call for a casino at the Philip Morris industrial complex off Interstate 95. But the city is not the only one seeking to explore the gaming opportunity.

After the adverse results of last year’s referendum, several state lawmakers and Petersburg officials made a push to amend the state’s casino law so residents in that city could decide whether a venue should be built there. Richmond is the only locality where voters disapproved of casino plans, with Norfolk, Danville, Bristol and Portsmouth -authorized by the original casino law in 2020- all moving to permit the projects with the approval of their communities.

Sen. Joe Morrissey

After legislative efforts to add Petersburg to the list of eligible cities failed earlier this year, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and other lawmakers sought to block a second Richmond referendum through a budget amendment. The move came as Richmond officials said they wanted to roll the dice again, claiming the proposal wasn’t properly presented to voters.

Among other claims, Richmond officials say the $30 million in projected annual tax revenue for the city had not been properly featured in discussions. And in an effort to make the project more appealing on a second referendum, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also proposed cutting the city’s real estate tax by 2 cents should the effort pass.

Urban One’s Richmond casino proposal calls for 100,000 square feet of gaming space, including 1,800 slot machines, 100+ table games, a poker room and a sportsbook. The resort would also include a 250-room hotel called Legacy Tower, a 3,000-capacity Rise Theater operated by Live Nation Entertainment, and 15 restaurants and bars.

The back and forth between Richmond and Petersburg officials led Urban One and its partners to contend that the budget provision introduced in June was “unlawful.” This is because the Richmond City Circuit Court had already granted the city’s request for another ballot referendum prior to the state budget’s adoption.

Both the Silver Spring-based media company and the city of Richmond have said they would work together to resolve the issue, even “through litigation” if needed, in order to hold the second referendum this year. These plans have now seemingly been abandoned, with law experts seeing here an expected move, as the budget would generally supersede any prior court order.

Morrissey, who last year supported the project in Richmond until the referendum’s failure, has since advocated for allowing Petersburg to have a shot at it. On Thursday, his office disclosed he and Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie, had sent a letter to Gov. Glenn Youngkin asking him to intervene should Richmond move forward with a second referendum, reports Times-Dispatch.

“We are respectfully requesting that you direct the Attorney General’s Office to utilize its legal authority to prevent Richmond from placing the mentioned referendum on the November, 2022, ballot,” the letter reads, warning about Richmond’s intent “to possibly ignore the law.” This move came after the city’s elections director, Keith Balmer, failed to provide a definitive answer on whether the referendum question would be placed on the election ballots for this year.

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