Stakeholders Raise Concerns After Petersburg Council’s Casino Vote

Written By Phil West on May 1, 2024
Hands raised for questions signifies concerns around Petersburg City Council's decision for a casino developer

Fresh off a vote from the Petersburg City Council awarding it the bid, the Cordish Companies pledges it will be able to open a temporary casino by the end of 2025 should the referendum to put a casino in Petersburg go their way this November.

Questions, however, are being raised by several different stakeholders in the wake of the decision.

One report says Bally’s was actually in line to win the bid before Council’s abrupt vote last week.

Letter to VA lawmakers said Bally’s would operate a Petersburg casino

Should the referendum pass in November, Petersburg would join three other Virginia cities currently hosting casinos – Bristol, Danville, and Portsmouth – as well as Norfolk, whose casino plans are currently hung up in a stalemate between developers and city officials. Virginia online casinos remain prohibited.

Last week, the Petersburg City Council emerged from a closed-door session to immediately award a casino license to Cordish, the company behind the Live! brand. Cordish’s partnership with Bruce Smith Enterprise, headed by the NFL Hall of Famer and Virginia Tech alumnus, gave the bid local hero appeal.

But according to reporting from the Virginia Mercury, City Manager John Altman Jr. signed a letter saying Council would award the bid to Bally’s. The story inferred Altman may have only penciled in Bally’s to allow the General Assembly to proceed with naming Petersburg as a casino host city. In fact, he never sent the signed letter to Bally’s.

The General Assembly’s bill, sponsored by Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, authorized replacing Richmond with Petersburg as one of five casino host cities per a statewide referendum passed in 2020, paving the way for a November vote in Petersburg.

Council urged to go slow on choosing a casino

On April 14, five bidders participated in a public forum hosted by Aird to present their plans.

At that meeting, Smith said, “The citizens of Petersburg have been waiting for this economic engine for generations,” presenting a $1.4 billion master development plan that included a 3,000-seat event center, a casino, two hotels, retail spaces, and more than 1,000 residential units on a 92-acre plot of land off the I-95 Wagner Road exit.

Asked about the Council vote, its possible involvement in getting out the vote in Petersburg ahead of November and its plans should they win approval, a Cordish representative issued a statement.

“We are thrilled and extremely honored to be selected by the city of Petersburg to co-develop a transformational mixed-use development with Bruce Smith Enterprise. … We intend to quickly open an initial first-phase casino within a year of voter approval to begin creating jobs, vendor opportunities and economic benefits immediately for the city of Petersburg and its residents. We and our partner Bruce Smith look forward to working with the city and residents of Petersburg on a successful referendum to create great jobs and business opportunities and together build a transformative economic development engine for the city.”

The Progress-Index reported on Monday that the Council’s longtime financial advising firm urged the body to get more information before making a selection.

“According to language in a report Davenport & Co. sent the city on the same day Council chose Cordish, the advisor informally said Cordish appeared to be the most financially viable of the five bidders. However, Davenport recommended a list of questions the city ask of all the vendors before it would make ‘a firm and final recommendation.'”

Aird thought Bally’s was city’s choice to run a casino

Aird saw the letter naming Bally’s as Petersburg’s choice to operate a casino in the city as fact. The Progress-Index reported that Aird issued a “scathing statement” on Friday night, criticizing the City Council for choosing Cordish over Bally’s, which Aird maintained had a better relationship with the hospitality union that would represent workers.

She dubbed the city’s version of events regarding the Altman letter to Bally’s as “a blatant and transparent revisionist history aimed at distracting from Council’s original intent – as demonstrated in previous years – to christen an operator that met their personal priorities while deprioritizing positive outcomes for the city.”

Aird said she felt like the Council acted unilaterally in choosing Cordish.

“When I chose to introduce [Senate Bill 628], I made it clear to the people I represent in Petersburg, the city and the General Assembly, that making Petersburg an eligible host city and allowing for a referendum was contingent upon the city’s willingness to have a process, increase public engagement, prioritize workers and the development of a plan for how revenues would be used to uplift the people in our community. I’ve made this abundantly clear in all my comments and publicly at every stage of this process. With what was characterized to me as a shared desire from the city for the same, I have in good faith collaborated with and fulfilled requests from city officials, with the understanding that we were collectively working towards the common goal of the best possible outcome for our citizens while navigating a dual course of General Assembly approval and their selection of an operator.”

The next Petersburg City Council meeting takes place today, May 1. It will also be a closed-session meeting.

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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.

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