Labor Union And Chamber Of Commerce Condemn Petersburg Casino Plans

Written By Phil West on May 2, 2024
Woman caught in middle of argument signifies Petersburg City Council under fire from unions and Chamber of Commerce over casino plans

The hospitality workers’ union Unite Here says it will sue the city of Petersburg over its decision to award a casino project to the Cordish Companies.

The union claims the city violated state law in holding the closed-door session that led to Petersburg canceling the RFP guiding the process. In Unite Here’s words, the Petersburg City Council chose to “select Cordish as its preferred operator without any public discussion.”

A spokesperson for the union tells PlayVirginia it is looking at several options on top of the lawsuit. One could be campaigning against a proposed ballot referendum in November asking Petersburg residents to approve a casino in the city.

Union Says Residents Have a ‘Right to Open Governance’

In the most recent session of the Virginia General Assembly, lawmakers approved Petersburg as a possible site for a casino, pending voter approval. It joined four other chosen cities in the commonwealth after lawmakers removed Richmond from the list. Despite the expansion of retail casinos, Virginia online casinos remain illegal.

The political director of Unite Here Local 25, Sam Epps, issued a press release laying out the union’s intention to sue the city of Petersburg over the City Council’s abrupt vote on April 24 to award the city’s proposed casino to Cordish and partner Bruce Smith Enterprise.

“The city of Petersburg’s actions show a shocking disregard for the law and democratic norms. Petersburg had begun a competitive RFP process that should have proceeded with transparency and fairness. Instead, City Council apparently abused a closed session to discuss the selection of the casino operator. Residents of Petersburg have the right to open governance – a right the City Council doesn’t seem to respect.”

A spokesperson for Unite Here Local 25, Benjy Cannon, said he won’t take interviews until after filing a lawsuit. He expressed hope the suit would be filed soon. He said the union could work to convince voters to reject the casino proposal expected to appear on November’s ballot if it comes to that.

Council Approves Cordish Then Abruptly Ends Meeting

The April 24 vote by the City Council happened after an hour-and-a-half-long closed-door session. Once Council members emerged, they quickly voted to approve Cordish then immediately exited the meeting, declining to comment on the decision.

Since then, a letter signed by City Manager John Altman Jr. and sent to the Virginia General Assembly has come under question. It says the city had chosen Bally’s to operate a casino in the city. Altman later indicated the letter attempted to satisfy concerns from state legislators in Richmond and wasn’t actually sent to Bally’s.

The only public element of the selection process, prior to the vote, was an April 14 public forum at the Petersburg Public Library hosted by Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg. At that town hall, Cordish, Bally’s, and three other entities unveiled their proposals.

In a six-page letter published by the Virginia Mercury, lawyers for the union express concerns over what they see as an obvious violation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The letter contends that “the decision reached in the April 24 closed-session meeting is clearly void,” hinting that the lawsuit would seek to nullify the decision.

Chamber Voices Concerns Over Casino, Not Process

John Brandt, speaking on behalf of the Southern Virginia Regional Chamber of Commerce, told PlayVirginia that the chamber has concerns over any casino being built in the city.

“At this time, the chamber is not taking a stance on the project for or against. We are on the side of economic development. But I have concerns of this type of project coming into our area, as we already have several businesses that cannot find employees. While if a casino comes in promising large wages and benefits, this will just steal employees from already struggling businesses.”

It’s interesting to note that the chamber site only currently lists two job openings.

Joanne Williams, a spokesperson for the city of Petersburg, took issue with Brandt’s statement on jobs, telling PlayVirginia a casino “will create more jobs” if built, without elaborating further. She said, “The city has no comment at this time” on the proposed Unite Here lawsuit or on the controversial vote.

Phil West Avatar
Written by
Phil West

Phil West is a longtime journalist based in Austin, Texas, whose bylines have appeared in The Daily Dot, Nautilus, Pro Soccer USA, Howler, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Chronicle. He has also written two books about soccer.

View all posts by Phil West