It wasn’t quite like Daniel going into the lion’s den, but perhaps as close as we’ll get without actual big cats.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, went to Danville this week and told city leaders they don’t need a casino. This was not what some community leaders there wanted to hear.
Before we get to why this matters, let’s recap the very short history of casinos in Virginia: For years, state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, has pushed for a casino in her city. A Republican-controlled General Assembly never showed any interest in that. But last year, a group of businessmen from Republican-voting Southwest Virginia proposed one for Bristol. That changed the political dynamics. So did a bill that made provisions for a casino in another small city in a Republican-voting part of the state: Danville.
There were grand projections of how many jobs these casinos would create, directly or indirectly, in what often are described as “financially stressed” parts of the state — an astonishing 5,200 in Bristol, an even more astonishing 7,000 in Danville. That led Danville city Councilman Gary Miller to proclaim: “This is Danville’s Amazon. This is Southside’s Amazon.” This seems, as Alan Greenspan once put it, irrational exuberance. Short version: The casino bill passed, with some conditions. First there has to be a state study. That’s due Dec. 1. Then the state Lottery Board would have to draw up rules. Then there’d have to be local referendum in each of the five places now eligible for a casino — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond.
So the craps table isn’t open just yet, but there’s a good bet it could be within a few years.
On Monday, though, Stanley warned Danville not to roll those dice. When the subject turned to the casino bill, Stanley used the occasion to say that a casino in Danville would make the city look bad.
“When you get a casino in Danville, you are in a sense saying, ‘I give up,’” Stanley said. Stanley said Bristol needs a casino because that city is in worse economic shape. “They need this desperately,” he said. But Danville? That city is doing better, he said. “We’re different,” he said. And that’s why he implored Danville leaders: “Don’t give up on the people and make us into an Atlantic City.”
Stanley’s central premise is that a casino is the municipal equivalent of a scarlet letter — an admission that a city has fallen so far that a gambling establishment is the best that it can hope for. In Stanley’s view, a city with a casino is like a shopping mall that has lost its anchor tenants and starts filling in the empty storefronts with flea markets. Maybe there’s still some rent coming in, but the mall is never coming back.
Is he right? Hold that thought.
Danville leaders weren’t happy with Stanley’s Atlantic City analogy. The law allows the city to have just one casino. It wouldn’t allow Danville or Bristol or any place else to become Atlantic City even those cities wanted to. Instead, what they see is a single business that could inject a nice stream of tax revenue into city coffers that would enable them to invest in things to accelerate the city’s economic transformation. What’s so bad about that?
Stanley is right that Danville is in a very different place economically from Bristol. Both are cities that, like others of others, have seen their traditional industries disappear. Of the two, Danville was hit harder. It hit bottom in the early 2000s when the domestic textile industry collapsed and moved overseas for cheaper labor. Since then, though, the city has clawed its way back by reinventing itself. Danville’s economic makeover is by no means complete — nobody’s is — but the city does stand out as a success story for how to build a new economy. Would a single casino really negate all that? Or would its flashing neon lights simply fade into the background while city officials count the tax dollars it generates? Obviously, opinions vary.
So let’s reframe the question. Are there any examples of communities where casinos have been instrumental in helping build a new economy for the 21st century?
There’s Las Vegas, of course, which began as a gambling city but now is becoming a high-tech start-up city as entrepreneurs flee pricey California for less-expensive Nevada. That’s also the only example. There are lots of so-called “successful” cities with casinos — casinos sure haven’t impeded economic growth in San Diego or Miami. But casinos haven’t led to, say, Bossier City, Louisiana, or Dubuque, Iowa, becoming “it” cities for technology companies. Maybe that wasn’t their goal. Nonetheless, a casino is a short-term fix; not a long-term substitute for a new economy.
Stanley worries that a single casino would turn Danville into a miniature Atlantic City. Danville can debate that. But this isn’t debatable: A casino won’t turn anyone’s city into a miniature Silicon Valley.