RICHMOND, Va. – It was a nasty surprise for Damon Harris to find a pro-Casino banner hanging on his South Richmond property. He hadn’t visited the abandoned building in two weeks before meeting with CBS 6 there Wednesday and said it was put up without his permission.
“It’s troubling, especially since we worked very hard to try to add investment to fix this and the casino wouldn’t do it,” Harris said as he tore down the sign and stomped on it.
Harris hopes to turn the abandoned building into a “heritage center” where Southside residents can get resources and information about housing stability and the construction business.
Harris owns the real estate firm Teal House Company, which he says focuses on fighting displacement and the negative impacts of gentrification. Much of his work has focused on Richmond’s southern neighborhoods, an area he says has been the target of deliberate disinvestment over the decades.
“I think Southside needs to do one thing: focus on the people, have a conversation with the people and invest in the people,” Harris said. “You start with stability and then you add the infrastructure around them. There are no infrastructure changes in this community.”
Out-of-state companies Urban One and Churchill Downs have promised to bring economic opportunity to the Southside, including 1,300 new jobs, with their $562 proposal to build a casino and resort just off I-95.
A majority of Southside voters in the Eighth and Ninth Wards, located near the site of the proposed project, voted to approve the casino. However, more than 60% of the city as a whole voted to reject the casino, even though the pro-casino campaign spent $10 million trying to convince Richmonders to vote yes in the 2023 referendum.
“If we could spend the money on people the same way we spent on advertising people, then we would create jobs,” Harris said. “We could have created new homeowners. We could have created rent stability.”
Harris said what South Richmond really needs is affordable housing and stable communities, not a casino.
“City leaders need to just embrace the people beyond the agenda, beyond the donors, beyond the shiny projects, and realize that every day there are people here who, while they’re doing shiny projects, are dressing up to go to eviction court,” Harris said .
Delegate-elect and Richmond City Council President Mike Jones, who represents parts of the Southside, said with the casino proposal again rejected, leaders still have to figure out how to address South Richmond’s challenges.
“We need to find economic development opportunities that fit our neighborhoods. We have food deserts, we don’t have grocery stores where we can get fresh fruits and vegetables anywhere in the Southside. We don’t have many restaurants and things like that. People still don’t have jobs,” Jones said. “We have to look and focus on what’s next. So we don’t have time to complain and cry about what is happening. The people have had their say.”
Jones said the city recently committed $100 million to affordable housing over the next five years, but said addressing his area’s problems requires a partnership from the business community.
“We have to continue to be creative. We have to continue to seek commitment from communities and businesses outside of the area to come in and help us because we know we can’t get out of this with taxes,” Jones said.
On Tuesday night after the election results, Mayor Levar Stoney said he was disappointed with the result.
The mayor had previously tied millions in new funding to children’s centers and programming to gaming tax revenue from the casino, if approved. Asked if the city would still be able to spend money on child care, the mayor said he would “search under every rock, under every pillow.”
“We can’t hope, dream and wish for revenue in the coffers of the City of Richmond. Projects must be implemented to generate revenue. I’m proud that we were able to expand the tax base in this city and that’s exactly what the casino and resort would do. Revenue is needed to solve the problems in this city. Those who think it will take prayers, dreams and wishes are simply wrong,” Stoney said.
He continued: “We were lucky enough to have someone at Churchill Downs and Urban make an investment. They volunteered to make an investment in Southside.”
In an audio clip released by the No Means No Casino campaign before the election, Urban One founder Kathy Hughes was heard on a radio show saying she had “wasted” $10 million trying to get a casino in Richmond.
“Such a loss. I am so angry with this opposition. Do you know how much good I could do with $10 million? I had to pay the lawyers and accountants and lobbyists and make donations to anyone I thought I could influence,” Hughes said.
Harris said he believed the referendum had “torn the city down the middle”.
After the casino vote, he’s hosting a community conversation at Ellwood Thompson on Thursday at 6 p.m. about “how to live in Richmond with intentionality and purpose” and to “pledge together, whether through our work, whether through our money, so that we can invest in ourselves instead of waiting for external entities to divide us in the voting booth.”
“Richmond has amazing people, amazing talent, people who love the city. Richmond has the ability to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants,” he said.
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