Gaming proponents size up the odds of a northern Virginia casino

Dec 27, 2023, 9:18 PM

A patron of The Rivers Casino in Portsmouth, Va., plays on one of the several varieties of games du...

A patron of The Rivers Casino in Portsmouth, Va., plays on one of the several varieties of games during the casino's grand opening, Jan. 23, 2023. With casinos popping up on Virginia's southern border, some lawmakers now want to explore whether wealthy northern Virginia should get in on the action. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

(Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — With casinos popping up on Virginia’s southern border, some lawmakers now want to explore whether wealthy northern Virginia should get in on the action.

State Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, is planning to re-introduce legislation that would allow Fairfax County to hold a referendum on building a casino. He introduced similar legislation last year that went nowhere. This year, though, his proposal envisions far more than a casino and includes a convention center, concert hall, hotel, and other amenities.

Marsden’s preferred location is Tysons Corner, a suburb of the nation’s capital just a few miles from the Maryland border and a center of wealth that’s already home to successful high-end shopping malls and retail. While that area makes the most sense to Marsden, the legislation would allow the county to pick a site anywhere near one of the Silver Line Metro stations, including Reston.

Placing a casino and entertainment on the Silver Line will be a boon to Dulles Airport, which got its own Silver Line station last year, Marsden said. It would also bring union jobs and the labor lobby is expected to be on board, he added.

Fairfax County has been the state’s economic engine for decades. But it’s facing a crunch in its commercial tax base as demand for office space has diminished post-pandemic. The county needs to be realistic about the need for change and the revenue potential that casino gambling could bring, said Marsden.

“I don’t like the lottery. I don’t like any of it. But we have to be practical, not naive,” he said, adding that Virginia should not leave its wealthiest region out of the equation when it comes to gaming revenue.

The push for a northern Virginia casino comes at a time when voters have been skeptical. Referenda for a casino in Richmond and a slots parlor in Manassas Park failed in November with roughly 58 percent of voters saying no in both cities.

Marsden, though, said Richmond’s rejection of a casino creates an opportunity for Fairfax County to fill the void.

Casino opponents are unmoved. Fairfax County Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who represents the Reston area, said putting a casino along the Silver Line is a waste of the region’s most valuable real estate.

It’s the rare constituent who tells him they want a casino in the county, said Alcorn. Simply allowing a referendum is also problematic, he said, because the amount of money pro-casino interests can throw at a ballot measure..

“It’s bad politics,” he said.

Casino supporters appear to be mounting a well-financed lobbying effort, he said. Corporate officers with Comstock, a developer with whom Marsden has been working on the casino effort, have formed a political action committee, Building a Remarkable Virginia, that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months.

Calls and emails to Comstock and the political action committee seeking comment were not returned.

Casinos have been approved and opened in Danville, Bristol and Portsmouth after legislation authorizing them, subject to local voter approval, authorized them in 2020. Voters in Norfolk also approved a casino but the project is still going through the approval process.

A study commissioned in 2019 by the the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee found that a northern Virginia casino could generate $155 million annually in tax revenue, nearly double the revenue projected for a Richmond casino.

Marsden’s bill has support at the state and local level.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell said it’s frustrating that Maryland generates tax revenue to pay for its schools with casinos that draw heavily on Virginia for their customer base.

He acknowledged that views are divided in the General Assembly and some are opposed to casinos but said that traditionally lawmakers have shown willingness to pass bills that let local jurisdictions make the decision for themselves.

At a local level, several members of the county board of supervisors expressed willingness to support a referendum.

Pat Herrity, the board’s lone Republican, said that legislation pairing a casino with a badly needed convention center merits real consideration. He said several developers have expressed interest in bidding on a project.

Dalia Palchik, who represents Tysons Corner, said nobody has approached her about supporting a casino project in her district. But she said she loves the idea of drawing a convention center to Tysons, and is open to legislation that would allow citizen input through a referendum and the regular county approval process.

“Definitely the devil is in the details with this one,” she said.

The board’s chairman, Jeff McKay, was noncommittal. He said that there was nothing to take a position on, because no legislation has been formally introduced yet.

That didn’t stop the Vienna Town Council, though, from issuing a resolution earlier this month making opposition to a casino a top priority. Councilmembers said the town, which abuts Tysons Corner, could suffer negative traffic and other unintended consequences. One councilman, Howard Springsteen, said casinos bring “an unwholesome community.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office declined comment on whether he would sign a casino bill.

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Gaming proponents size up the odds of a northern Virginia casino