Petersburg Keeping Cordish Casino Proposal Under Wraps Despite Calls for Transparency

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Edward Scimia

Updated by Edward Scimia

Journalist

Last Updated 16th May 2024, 06:26 PM

Petersburg Keeping Cordish Casino Proposal Under Wraps Despite Calls for Transparency

The $1.4 billion Live! Gaming & Entertainment District by The Cordish Companies is planned for Petersburg, VA, amid transparency concerns. Image: Rendition by Cordish Companies)

The City of Petersburg has declined to release the Cordish Companies’ winning proposal for a casino destination complex in the city, adding to the questions over the murky process by which the Virginia city came to its decision.

Petersburg Freedom of Information Act Officer Shaunta’ Beasley denied the newspaper’s request for a copy of the Cordish casino offer that the city ultimately selected last month, according to The Virginia Mercury.

Open Government Advocates Blast FOIA Decision

In the decision, which came on Tuesday, Beasley said that the city did not have to release that information because Petersburg cancelled the competitive bidding process and hasn’t actually awarded a contract to Cordish yet.

“Therefore, the file is closed and no records are available,” Beasley said in an email to the Virginia Mercury.

That decision came as a surprise to those who want transparency, both in the Petersburg casino decision and in government more generally.

“I would be hard pressed to come up with any policy reasons that would say you can get around both procurement and public records laws simply by saying ‘oh well, we’ve cancelled the process and made a decision outside of it,’” Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told reporters.

Sebastian Sinclair, president of Christiansen Capital Advisors – a company that advises states on gaming issues – told the Virginia Mercury that he has been “thoroughly unimpressed” by Petersburg’s casino process.

“It’s almost the golden rule of casino gambling authorization,” Sinclair said. “You’ve got to be transparent in the process.”

Cordish Pick Came as Surprise After Closed Session

The Petersburg Town Council chose Cordish as its casino developer on Wednesday, April 24 during a closed session with no warning that a decision would be made that day. 

That was just 10 days after five finalists – including Cordish, Bally’s, Penn Entertainment, Rush Street Gaming, and the Warrenton Group – had each presented their proposals at a public town hall on April 14.

The choice of Cordish wasn’t shocking. Petersburg had chosen Cordish as its partner in a failed attempt at becoming a host city for a casino in 2022. 

This time around, Cordish partnered with former NFL star Bruce Smith, who is now a Virginia Beach developer, and many observers saw Cordish as the favorite to land the Petersburg casino project due to its existing relationship with the city.

But the City’s decision to cancel the request for proposal (RFP) process and simply choose Cordish created an immediate backlash.

Hospitality union Unite Here Local 25 – which said it has a positive relationship with all bidders other than Cordish – has threatened to sue the city over the lack of transparency in its choice of developer. 

Meanwhile, Virginia State Senator Lashresce Aird (D-Petersburg), who led the legislative effort to add Petersburg to the list of eligible casino hosts in the state, has blasted city officials for their decision, while they in turn have accused her of attempting to intimidate the city into picking a different partner.

Aird Defends Efforts as ‘Collaborative Partner’ for Petersburg

Questions were raised over a Letter of Intent (LOI) addressed to Bally’s, which was signed by Petersburg City Manager March Altman a week before the City Council chose Cordish. The letter was never sent to Bally’s, and Petersburg officials have said they signed it under duress under threat of the Virginia Legislature refusing to support a Petersburg casino.

Petersburg officials have insinuated that the letter was prepared by Aird. The Progress-Index reported that it had obtained an email thread showing that a draft of the letter was indeed sent from Aird chief of staff Jameson Babb. 

On Monday, Aird acknowledged that fact in a statement sent to The Progress-Index, but defended her actions as an effort to help the city navigate the casino process.

“My office served as a sincere resource and collaborative partner for the leadership of the city of Petersburg, from start to finish,” Aird said in her statement. “Their request for guidance from the leadership for their LOI arose from [City Attorney Tony Williams] refusing to assist them – and that is what’s reflected.”

Williams had advised the city council that he didn’t think it needed to complete the RFP process, as the city had been told by outside advisors that the Cordish package was the best offer for the city.

Aird has repeatedly stated that neither she nor her staff ever attempted to coerce Petersburg from picking Bally’s. In her statement, she blasted the city council for how it has framed the process.

“These attempts to blame the General Assembly and portray themselves as coerced into anything by me or otherwise is merely political theater and a distraction from this council’s true intentions to move forward with no process, no public engagement, and proceed in the least transparent way imaginable,” Aird said. 

“The recurring actions of this body have long proved that nobody can make this city’s leadership do anything – even when it’s in the best interest of the people they represent.”

Meet The Author

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Edward Scimia
Edward Scimia
Journalist Journalist

Ed Scimia is a freelance writer who has been covering the gaming industry since 2008. He graduated from Syracuse University in 2003 with degrees in Magazine Journalism and Political Science. In his time as a freelancer, Ed has worked for About.com, Gambling.com, and Covers.com, among other sites. He has also authored multiple books and enjoys curling competitively, which has led to him creating curling-related content for his YouTube channel "Chess on Ice."

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