A Casino in Danville is No Gamble

Danville River Mills, in better times

Danville River Mills, yesterday and today
In 1993, Ross Perot warned that within ten years, NAFTA would suck jobs out of America and spur a wave of plant closings. Turns out he was right. The Economic Policy Institute reported that, as of 2007, NAFTA had cost one million Americans their jobs. As if that wasn’t bad enough, greedy big banks and insurance companies were busy creating an historic home loan crisis that led to a near depression in 2008. The combination and convergence of those two disasters had a devastating effect on cities whose economy depended upon textile, automotive, and furniture plants. Danville, Virginia was particularly hard hit, with the closure of Dan River Mill, loss of tobacco jobs, and a decline in rail traffic. Now, Danville has an opportunity to bounce back big time.

Last year, Danville (along with economically depressed Bristol) commissioned a study by the Chmura Group which concluded that a casino resort would create nearly 7,000 new jobs, and net over $20 million dollars in annual tax revenues for the city, whose vice mayor, Lee Vogler told me, “Unprecedented jobs and revenues would be created. It’s the biggest economic development opportunity in my lifetime.” Buoyed by that study, Danville City Council planned to hold a local referendum this fall in which voters could greenlight a casino project. Unfortunately, lawmakers in Richmond slammed on the brakes, ruling that the General Assembly must first conduct an impact study before it can give permission to hold a referendum. That means it will be sometime in 2020 before a vote is taken.

Given the findings of the Chmura Group, a company who the General Assembly itself has relied upon in the past, I asked Vogler why another study was warranted. “I’m not sure about the logic of that,” he said. “Perhaps they want to know if there would be any negative impact on statewide economic development, but our local economic development office has found no negative impact. In fact, 40 other states have test cases, so there’s plenty of data available. I didn’t see any reason to delay.

Vogler admits that state legislators need time to meet and decide how casinos would be regulated and by who, but those kinds of procedural matters need not keep local voters from approving a casino project in principal. I smelled a rat, and asked the Vice Mayor why any elected official in their right mind would oppose or delay something that could benefit so many people in depressed cities.

“Some legislators don’t want casinos in their part of the state, like Northern Virginia which is flush with cash. They don’t understand the needs of areas like Danville and Bristol, and what the casino would mean to us. Right now we have $150 million dollars in capital improvement needs for our schools, and the tax revenues from a casino would help us build and improve schools.”

But an insensitivity to the economic needs of Danville isn’t the only reason that some legislators put up road blocks for a casino.

“There has been some opposition from people who say gambling is against their religious beliefs, which I respect. But when I ask them if they have ever bought a lottery ticket, or a church raffle ticket, they say, ‘Yes’. I tell them that’s gambling. They respond by saying, ‘Yes, but lottery sales and raffle proceeds go for a good cause,’ and I tell them, so will casino revenues.”

Vogler also suspects that some folks think a casino will bring organized crime to Danville, but there is no evidence to support that myth. Moreover, the American Gaming Association polled law enforcement officers who actually work around casinos, and they reported that crime has not increased on their beat.

For now, Vogler and his counterparts in Bristol and Portsmouth hope to educate state lawmakers about the benefits of casinos, and move the timeline up for a local vote. “I want to get it in front of our citizens. If this goes to a referendum, it will pass. I think the casino is coming sooner or later, said Vogler.”

Casinos almost always make money, thus the phrase, “Never bet against the house”. But the odds have been stacked against the folks of Danville for a long time, and a casino may be the only way for their luck to change.


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