‘Petulant Child’: Fight Over Petersburg Casino Referendum Gets Personal

Written By Dann Stupp on January 12, 2022 - Last Updated on August 1, 2023
Petersburg casino referendum

One Virginia senator is pushing for a Petersburg casino referendum, but he’s making some enemies in Richmond, the capital city, in the process.

In 2021 Richmond voters narrowly struck down a casino referendum. The tightly contested campaign ultimately failed by a 51.2% to 48.8% margin. Had it succeeded, Urban One would’ve built the $560 million One Casino + Resort in the capital city.

Immediately following the failed referendum, Virginia lawmakers and other officials began jockeying for position. In fact, some Richmond officials even said they’d look at holding a second referendum of their own – one with better messaging.

However, a bill focusing on Virginia casinos authored by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, could create some problems there. Not only could it open the door for a Petersburg casino referendum, but it’d block Richmond from holding a second one.

Petersburg casino referendum to block Richmond?

We know that Virginia casinos are coming to the cities of Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth. Residents in those cities all voted in favor of casinos in 2020. And preliminary site work has already begun on some projects as they prepare for openings in 2022 and 2023.

Richmond, though, waited a year to hold its referendum. As it turned out, that extra year gave Richmond casino opposition even more time to mount organized anti-casino campaigns. Some of it was clearly offensive, but it was also effective.

In 2019 the Virginia General Assembly approved five cities to hold a referendum. With Richmond opting against the possibility with the 2021 vote, other cities quickly sensed an opportunity back in November. Now, Sen. Morrissey has submitted Senate Bill 203, which is headed to the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee for consideration.

The bill doesn’t mention Petersburg by name. However, with the bill laying out the qualifications for a casino city when it comes to tax base, poverty and unemployment, the Richmond-adjacent city of 30,000 would fit the bill.

But the final part of the bill has put Morrissey at odds with Richmond 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell. She’s pushing for local legislation for a second referendum in Richmond. But as the bill states:

“The governing body of any eligible host city that holds a local referendum pursuant to this section that subsequently fails shall be prohibited from holding another local referendum on the same question for a period of five years from the date of the last referendum.”

In other words, when it comes to a Richmond casino, the city would be ineligible to vote again until 2026.

Morrissey and Trammell spar over casino bill

Morrissey told Richmond.com that a second Richmond vote would be undemocratic and redundant. He also doesn’t like that Trammell and other Richmond political candidates could continue to campaign off an issue that was seemingly resolved on Election Day 2021.

As Morrissey told the newspaper:

“That’s not the democratic process. Reva Trammell should know better. I’m a little disappointed. I expected more from her.”

He then told Virginia’s Progress-Index, Petersburg’s daily newspaper, that Trammell was acting “like a petulant child” over the situation. He also said Trammell, who’s held her office for the past 15 years, “needs to put her big-girl pants on.”

“I want to be the quarterback of the Washington Football Team,” Morrissey told the newspaper. “Guess what. We don’t always get what we want.”

For her part. Trammell said the Richmond casino referendum “failed for all the wrong reasons.” The voting results were largely split along geographic and racial lines, she said.

In fact, Trammell said that 85% of residents in her district want a casino and it’s her job to listen to them. As she said:

“I’m doing what my people have asked me to do. I don’t know why Joe would say that. He knows how bad people wanted it.”

What’s next for Petersburg casino referendum?

No one knows the fate of Morrissey’s bill. However, it’s clear that it’s created a rift between two Virginia pols who say they’ve been longtime friends.

Petersburg officials, including Mayor Sam Parham, are open to the idea of s casino referendum. He even wants proposals from multiple companies, not just Urban One, to assure they get the best deal.

After all, Urban One, a Maryland-based media conglomerate with radio stations in Richmond, had teamed with the local Colonial Downs Group on the casino proposal. They had promised Richmond residents $50 million per year over an entire decade if the resort opened. Plus, there would’ve been significant boosts to tourism, hospitality and tax revenue.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who heavily campaign off his support of the first referendum, is undecided if he’ll support a second effort.

But it’s clear that if Richmond doesn’t act, other cities are willing to. And they may even try to shut out Richmond in the process.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Dann Stupp

Dann Stupp is a longtime sports journalist who’s written and edited for The Athletic, USA Today, ESPN, MLB.com and other outlets. He lives in Lexington, Virginia.

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