Big Turnout As Colonial Downs Opens Gambling Parlor In South Richmond

The following appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch July 1st and was written by Graham Moomaw with photos by Daniel Sangjib.

Retiree Bina Williams and her group showed up at 8:30 a.m. Monday to be one of the first to get in when Rosie’s Gaming Emporium opened its doors.

It was a wise move, because the line of people outside the former Kmart on Midlothian Turnpike had stretched to the end of the building by the time the ribbon was officially cut on the city’s new casino.

“It’s about time Richmond gets some entertainment. This is going to make a lot of money for Richmond,” said Williams, 55.

The group of women at the front of the line said they had already been to the Rosie’s at the Colonial Downs racetrack in New Kent County, so they knew how to use the slots-like historical horse racing machines that are the first and, for now, the only form of casino-style gambling allowed in Virginia.

The Colonial Downs Group, the new name for the out-of-state business venture that bought the track last year, has already opened two other Rosie’s locations — one at the New Kent track and one in the town of Vinton in Roanoke County.

With 700 historical horse racing machines, the South Richmond Rosie’s is the largest one yet.

“This is a blessing for real,” said Celestine Christian, a Richmond bus driver.

It wasn’t clear how many in the crowd were cashing out with more money than they came in with. But city and state officials trumpeted the occasion as a clear economic win.

“Who’s ready to play? Who’s ready to win? Who’s ready to have some fun?” shouted Rita McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corp., as she hyped up the waiting crowd.

Colonial Downs said it invested $41 million to turn the vacant big-box store into a gambling parlor featuring hundreds of neon-hued terminals that look like traditional slot machines. The facility also includes a 100-seat restaurant, a bar, a gift shop and off-track betting on horse races being run around the country. The project created roughly 225 jobs and will generate an estimated $2 million per year in tax revenue for the city, according to the company.

“We are thrilled to have you in our city,” said City Council President Cynthia Newbille, who predicted the facility will be an “entertainment destination” that will help revitalize the Midlothian Turnpike corridor.

The historical horse racing machines — which are powered by an archive of past horse races but allow players to bet blindly with the push of a button — allow players to wager 20 cents to $15 per spin. Because the games operate under a parimutuel wagering system similar to live horse racing, the size of the payouts depends on how big the betting pool grows.

Bettors pumped nearly $71 million into the machines at the two Rosie’s locations in New Kent and Vinton in May, according to a report filed with the Virginia Racing Commission, generating $4.7 million in revenue for Colonial Downs.

As a gesture of good will, Colonial Downs Group representatives used Monday’s ceremony to present jumbo-sized, $10,000 checks to a handful of local nonprofits: Feed More; Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia; and TAPS, a program that serves families of fallen soldiers. The company also pledged a $500,000 total gift to South Richmond’s Miles Jones Elementary School.

Some Richmond residents were concerned that the casino would invite crime, a fear Colonial Downs tried to allay by putting up a security tower overlooking the vast parking lot.

Despite opposition from anti-gambling advocates who said the facility would fuel gambling addiction and drain the bank accounts of low-income people, the path to casino-style gambling in Richmond was mostly smooth.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill to legalize historical horse racing machines amid an all-out push to reopen Colonial Downs, which shut down in 2014 due to a dispute between horsemen’s groups and the track’s former owner. By creating a potentially lucrative new revenue stream to support live horse racing, the legislation sealed the track’s 2018 sale to a business group with deep experience in the gambling and casino industries.

The legislation’s impact reached far beyond New Kent, enabling the Colonial Downs buyer to open satellite gambling facilities in any locality where voters had approved off-track betting. The City Council gave its approval for the 700-machine facility in September.

Colonial Downs is planning to open a fourth Rosie’s in Hampton in the fall, and the company is pursuing voter referendums in Danville and the town of Dumfries in Prince William County that would allow it to expand further.

The racing commission has given permission for up to 3,000 historical horse racing machines statewide.

Several players on opening day said they preferred the South Richmond location to the New Kent track due to the shorter drive and more intuitive floor layout.

J.B. Martin, a 55-year-old retiree from Richmond, said he hopes to see more gambling options at some point.

“I wish they had a card room in here,” Martin said. “That’d be awesome.”

Martin may get his wish.

The state recently launched a comprehensive gambling study that will explore the feasibility of traditional casino gambling, online gambling, sports betting and the future of the Virginia Lottery.

Lawmakers initiated the study after a legislative proposal to allow casinos in Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe has also announced its intentions to open a tribal casino in Norfolk or elsewhere on its ancestral lands in eastern Virginia.

The gambling study is due Dec. 1.