Voters in the Town of Dumfries approved a referendum in November to allow a “Rosie’s Gaming Emporium” pari-mutuel betting parlor with 150 “historical horse-race” betting machines. Now, bills advancing in the Virginia General Assembly could allow Rosie’s to add an additional 1,800 machines, creating a facility as big as some casinos.
Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-29th, and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-17th, expressed concerns about the Senate version of the bill, SB 34, during a floor debate Tuesday.
“It proposes 1,800 machines additionally to what it’s already authorized,” McPike said. “You’re going from 150 machines to almost 2,000 machines. That’s a pretty big jump.”
The state Senate approved the bill in a 29-11 vote. The House of Delegates approved a companion bill, HB 4, in a 61-33 vote, also on Tuesday.
McPike, who represents much of Prince William County but not Dumfries, voted in favor of the bill but said on the Senate floor he has concerns about increasing the number historical horse-race machines allowed in Dumfries after voters approved a referendum for only 150 machines.
The bill would allow the Virginia Racing Commission to authorize up to 1,800 machines in a satellite facility in a metropolitan area with a population of 2.5 million or more located in a jurisdiction that has passed a referendum prior to January 1, 2020. Although the Town of Dumfries has just more than 5,000 residents, the town fits that criteria given its proximity to Washington D.C., Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.
“We need to have an honest discussion about what we’re doing overriding administrative rules that have been set and what’s been reported to the public through referendum,” McPike said on the Senate floor.
The new rules are part of omnibus bills authorizing casino gaming in the Cities of Portsmouth, Richmond, Norfolk, Danville and Bristol. Changes to the allowable number of historical horse-race machines were included in the bill to address concerns that casino gaming would negatively impact historical horse-race betting in Virginia. The bills require voters in those five cities to authorize casino gambling via ballot referendum before any planned casino can move forward.
A November 2019 JLARC study of casino gaming in Virginia said revenue from historical horse-race betting is projected to decline by 45% from what it likely would have been without casino competition, and therefore tax revenue generated by historical horse-race wagering would also decline.
The Virginia General Assembly approved off-track facilities with historical horse-race betting machines after authorizing a deal to reopen the Colonial Downs horse racing track in New Kent County in 2018. The Colonial Downs Group has opened four pari-mutuel betting satellite facilities in Virginia, the first in New Kent, followed by facilities in Vinton, Richmond and Hampton.
Under the casino bills, Colonial Downs would be able to add 600 historical horse racing machines at its Rosie’s locations for each casino operation approved by local voters, with a cap of an additional 2,500 machines statewide.
The company already operates 2,150 machines, including 700 each in Richmond and Hampton, 600 in New Kent and 150 in Vinton.
On the Senate floor, state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, said the new casinos would be a challenge for Colonial Downs and its Rosie's Gaming Emporiums.
“By throwing five casinos into the state, it’s kind of changed the nature of the ballgame for these folks. They’ve come in and invested $90 million in Virginia in these facilities. Now all of a sudden, we inject a bunch of competition in and they need to be able to expand their business model more. And that’s what the consideration here is,” Surovell said.
Surovell, whose Senate district includes Dumfries, voted in favor of the bill.
“By having this facility in the Town of Dumfries, we will keep our Virginia dollars in Virginia. We will create an economic development project in Virginia to help this town and help Northern Virginia,” Surovell said.
Reeves, R-17th, voted against the bill. Reeves said he is concerned the increase in the number of historical horse-race machines has not kept pace with the number of authorized horse races in the commonwealth. Colonial Downs had promised to inject some of its earnings from Rosie’s gaming parlors back into horse racing as a means of revitalizing that industry.
“Make no mistake, this is gambling. Rosie’s is a casino. It’s not about horse racing anymore,” Reeves said.
Town Council to revisit Rosie’s Tuesday
Meanwhile, the “Rosie’s Gaming Emporium” proposed for Dumfries is back on the agenda for the Dumfries Town Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 18, after a conditional use permit for the off-track betting parlor died in a close vote on Feb. 4.
The move to put Rosie’s back on the agenda isn’t unexpected, given the outcome of the first vote. After Dumfries voters went to the polls last November to vote in favor of bringing pari-mutuel betting to the town, the Dumfries Town Council decided in January to require any such operator to obtain a conditional use permit before opening an off-track betting parlor.
Colonial Downs, the only entity licensed to operate off-track betting operations in Virginia, applied for such a permit to open a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in a rented storefront in the Triangle Shopping Plaza. The conditional use permit allows only 150 machines, which is the current limit posed by the Virginia Gaming Commission for a town Dumfries’ size.
Mark Hubbard, a spokesman for Colonial Downs, said the company will still pursue a permit to open a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium with 150 historical horse racing machines at the Triangle shopping center. But he said the company is exploring possibilities for another location in Dumfries if the casino bills pass.
“We’re not prepared at this early stage in the legislative process to talk about any other potential locations. But we would certainly want to work with the town to find a location that would be convenient and could accommodate the larger numbers,” Hubbard said.
Dumfries Mayor Derrick Wood said Thursday he continues to support the conditional use permit for a 150-machine gambling parlor to be located in the Triangle Shopping Plaza.
Wood further said he does not currently have a position on allowing Colonial Downs to open a larger Rosie’s Gaming Emporium should the state legislation pass.
“Right now, I’m indifferent because I’m focused on the current facility,” Wood said.
If Colonial Downs were to propose something bigger, they would need to file a new conditional use permit application, Wood noted.
“The question now is, where would it go? They would have to come up with another place,” Wood said. “If they want to propose something bigger, I want to see what they want to propose.”
Wood said he continues to support Colonial Downs’ current effort because of the jobs and tax revenue it would bring to the town along with the opportunity to revitalize the Triangle Shopping Center, which is more than 50 years old and showing its age.
The town council voted down the conditional use permit for Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in a 3-4 vote Feb. 4 after some town councilmembers disagreed on whether Dumfries should require a $100,000 donation from Colonial Downs to offset traffic impacts and whether Triangle Shopping Plaza is a suitable spot for gambling.
Wood and Councilmembers Cliff Brewer and Brian Fields voted in favor of the permit while Vice Mayor Monae Nickerson and Councilmembers Cydny Neville, Selonia Miles and Melva Willis voted against it.
Miles expressed concerns about introducing gambling within walking distance of Williamstown and other lower-income residential areas. Neville said she is opposed a betting parlor operating so close to the Dumfries’ neighborhood library and other retail businesses.
But Nickerson’s vote against the permit was less clear. Nickerson had voted against a move earlier in the meeting to strip the $100,000 donation from the conditions of the permit. Nickerson’s move to put the permit back on the agenda for a second vote is an indication she wants to revisit the discussion. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, Nickerson can place the permit on the agenda for another vote because she was on the prevailing side of the Feb. 4 vote.
On Thursday, Wood called Miles and Neville’s objections to the Triangle Shopping Plaza “a valid concern.”
But he also said he’s visited the other Rosie’s Gaming Emporium locations and has confidence in Colonial Downs’ efforts to spot problem gamblers and provide help.
Wood also praised Colonial Downs’ promise to pay workers no less than $15 an hour as well as their charitable donations they make to their host communities.
“I’m confident about their commitment to the community they serve,” Wood added. “They’re not coming to take away from our community. They’re coming to enhance it.”