Virginia’s pioneering casino project
Virginia is fast playing catch-up with more mature gaming states. Its lawmakers passed sports betting legislation in 2020, with the market opening for business in January this year. November 2020 also saw plans for a quartet of brick-and-mortar casinos approved by voters in a referendum, one each in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Bristol, and Danville.
Three of the cities were quick to choose a casino partner: Hard Rock in Bristol, Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Norfolk, Caesars in Danville, and Rivers in Portsmouth.
The city of Richmond is set to add a fifth, should a referendum this November secure backing from residents. And after a competitive process that saw the likes of Bally’s Corporation, Cordish Companies, Wind Creek Hospitality and the Pamunkey Tribe beaten by Urban One to secure the slot of preferred partner.
With plans for a referendum ratified in June, all that remains is for voters to approve the selection in November. Should the project get the green light, One Casino and Resort will be the only Black American-owned casino in the US
Urban One, past and present
While the company is gearing up to move into casino development, Urban One’s hertigate is in a different industry.
It is the largest distributor of urban content in the country, chief executive Alfred Liggins says.
“For more than 40 years, Urban One has been the leading voice speaking to Black America,” he explains. “First, as the largest local urban radio network. Then, as the largest syndicator of urban programming. Our brands are unsurpassed. Our content is relevant. Our reach is unparalleled. No other multi-media company reaches over 80% of Black America.”
Liggins argues that whatever medium, whether it’s TV One, Radio One, iOne Digital or Reach Media – just some of its brands – Urban One “represents a people whose impact has touched every fibre of American life”.
“That’s what makes us experts,” he says. “We are creators and distributors. We are developers and executors. And we are the answer for urban enthusiasts wanting content to satisfy their mind, body, and spirit.”
Over the years, Urban One has built a strong media presence and rallied a massive audience, and it has already added an interest in the gambling sector to this mix.
The opportunity to join the gambling industry knocked in 2016: “Urban One entered the gaming industry when MGM built National Harbor in Maryland,” Liggins recalls. “MGM was looking for a minority partnership that could help them market the property.
“We have enjoyed a very successful partnership with MGM, and they have been supportive of our desire to expand into the industry in Richmond.”
Combining Urban One’s media experience with the gambling industry’s growth prospects, especially in the wake of its experience gained through the MGM deal, is a no-brainer, in Liggins’ view.
“We recognised an opportunity in Richmond to become the only Black-owned casino in the country, and we have been working for the past couple of years to make it a reality,” he says. “We will use our media expertise to market and promote One up and down the east coast and across the country. We have a terrific story to tell.”
Now on the precipice of approval to construct a Richmond casino, Urban One has come a long way from its media beginnings, and Liggins is excited about the property’s prospects.
An industry milestone
Once approved and opened, “ONE would become the only Black-owned casino in the United States,” says Liggins. It’s quite a journey.
“My mother, Cathy Hughes, founded Urban One as Radio One back in the 1980s,” he explains. “She wanted to provide a platform for African Americans to speak and be heard. She purchased our flagship station, WOL in Washington DC, by bringing together a diverse group of investors that was minority-controlled. And that investment has led us to where we are today.
Liggins views Urban One as a gateway for Black businesses and industry professionals to thrive, something he aims to continue with the Richmond project.
“This has been our model, it worked then, and it will work now,” he says. “We are extremely proud to be leading the way for Black entrepreneurship and opportunity.”
Liggins also hopes becoming the only Black-owned casino-hotel in the country will open doors for more Black – and minority-owned businesses – in the gambling industry, a space many consider lacking when it comes to diversity.
“We want to be trailblazers in helping the gaming industry continue to evolve, diversify and grow,” he says. “The One project is a critical part of our efforts to keep moving forward and create new opportunities to build wealth for people of colour.
“The only way we can make real progress is by reducing the economic divide between black and white and creating environments where everyone is at the same table with the same opportunities.”
Urban One’s Richmond casino
Though the city selected Urban One as its preferred casino partner, Liggins is quick to note the process is not over yet. Richmond voters still need to approve the selection of One in a public referendum scheduled for November 2.
So there’s a bit of a wait, not to mention construction time, but Liggins is excited about what Urban One can offer to Richmond.
“An evaluation committee selected One because we have the best location (right off Interstate 95 for thousands of travellers to see every day), the best offerings and amenities, and the best team of investors and professionals to own and operate the project,” Liggins says. “We are confident voters will want to support the great jobs, first-class entertainment destination, and significant tax revenues this project will bring to Richmond.”
As any industry-savvy person will know, these massive casino projects take time. Liggins estimates that Urban One could open within a few years, provided everyone moves smoothly.
“Assuming we have voter approval, One is planning to submit its final application to the Virginia Lottery before the end of 2021. The lottery has up to 12 months to review the final application and grant a license to operate. We are optimistic that we will be opening sometime in 2023.”
And when it opens, Urban One plans to capitalise on the rapid growth of sports betting. “If our application is approved,” Liggins says, “it will come with a sportsbook license as well. This is the same for all casinos that have submitted applications to the Virginia Lottery.”
Engaging the Richmond community
Long before Urban One’s casino opens, Richmond residents will start to feel the impact of the project on the community. Urban One has partners locked in with vast experience of business the state.
“Our operating partners for the One project, Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, helped spawn the establishment of gaming in Virginia when they bought the Colonial Downs thoroughbred-horse racetrack and started opening Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums across the state several years ago,” Liggins says.
He points out that this heritage, which contributed to the state’s General Assembly approving historical horse racing machines (HHRMs) as a form of pari-mutuel wagering, as a precursor to the gaming expansion of 2020.
“They are experts in the industry, and together, we are bringing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in important tax revenues to Virginia.
Liggins notes several initiatives in the works that will help drive support for the project even before the vote in November: “We will start hosting job fairs soon, in advance of the referendum, so potential applicants can get to know all about One and the great jobs for which we will be hiring.
“We will be hiring workers from all over the city. We are committed to a $15 per hour minimum wage. Our average annual salary with benefits will be $55,000. And, our employees will get to participate in profit sharing, so everyone benefits from the success of One.”
Furthermore, he says, Urban One has already been part of Richmond’s community for more than 20 years – the casino is already a community project.
“We are always looking for ways to elevate our community economically, politically, and socially, so a project where we can create jobs build generational wealth, and improve the overall landscape of Richmond is our kind of project,” he explains. “We have already formed some significant community partnerships with groups that focus on education, workforce development, and affordable housing. We are actively looking for sponsors who are committed to the community as well.”
And as for the property itself, when asked what Virginians expect from the property, Liggins notes that One will offer something for every type of customer: “It will be a landmark destination for South Richmond, an area that has not seen a premier economic development project like this before.
“The casino, hotel, and our 15 local restaurants and bars will anchor the project, but it will be surrounded by a 3,000 seat Rise Theatre, that will bring 200 live shows and 250,000 visitors annually to Richmond with all kinds of music genres.”
This will be supported by a partnership with Live Nation to bring the biggest acts to the property, as well as an on-site radio, TV studio and soundstage.
“As the largest syndicator of Urban programming in the country, we will bring some of that production to One,” Liggins continues. “We will also have 55 acres of green space on the property called Glory Park. It will have community gardens, miles of hiking and biking trails, dedicated space for food trucks, and playgrounds – a place for the entire community to enjoy.
“They are expecting the best, and we are going to deliver the best.”