Virginia General Assembly Accused Of Coercion In Petersburg Casino Deal

Erik Gibbs

A man with his hands wrapped in chains

There’s a new wrinkle in the plans for a casino in Petersburg, Virginia. The Petersburg City Council selected The Cordish Companies to build the casino, should it be approved by voters this fall, but the decision apparently goes against the General Assembly’s demands.

Virginia’s efforts to add five new casinos has repeatedly proven controversial, but the latest revelation adds an entirely new twist to the drama. The Virginia Mercury reports that the General Assembly ordered the Petersburg City Council to choose Bally’s, not Cordish.

A letter reportedly showing the Petersburg City Council's support for Bally's to develop a casino.

The media outlet presented a letter that City Manager John Altman Jr. had apparently signed on April 17 indicating a preference for Bally’s, another contender in the race to develop the casino. The plot thickened with allegations that the Virginia General Assembly had exerted undue influence over the council’s decision, forcing the city to draft the letter favoring Bally’s as the chosen casino developer.

It was claimed in the Mercury article that the Assembly had coerced the council. It allegedly implicitly threatened the rejection of Petersburg’s petition to be selected for a casino if the Petersburg City Council didn’t comply.

The city’s spokesperson later clarified that the letter was signed under duress, a claim that only added to the intrigue surrounding the council’s ultimate decision. In addition, the council drafted its official rejection of the attempted manipulation of the system on the part of the General Assembly.

Bally’s never received the letter, which may help protect Petersburg legally.

It’s not over yet

The controversy also highlighted the absence of a competitive bidding process for casino projects in Virginia. When the state authorized casinos in 2020, it allowed select cities to handpick their development partners, bypassing the traditional bidding procedures. This approach was intended to streamline the process, but, in the case of Petersburg, it led to confusion and accusations of backroom dealings.

[The] letter of intent signed by [City Manager John Altman Jr.] was never formally authorized by City Council (sic); was not executed freely and voluntarily; and was not delivered to Bally’s but instead was signed and returned to the sender in response to a demand as a condition of allowing SB628 to proceed.

Petersburg City Council

Cordish’s selection was not without its merits. The Baltimore-based firm presented a $1.4 billion proposal for a mixed-use gambling and entertainment development, promising significant economic benefits for Petersburg. The project, which includes plans for a casino, hotel, and event center, could create thousands of jobs and become a major tourist destination.

Despite the potential benefits, the manner in which the decision was reached casts a shadow. The allegations of coercion by the General Assembly, the lack of transparency in the selection process, and the abrupt change in the city’s stance are all factors that could fuel public skepticism.

That could impact the results of the vote when local residents decide the fate of the casino this November. Interviews with local residents by media outlets show that there are those who don’t want the casino, and the next six months figure to offer more drama between General Assembly lawmakers and the Petersburg City Council.