WASHINGTON – With casino approvals expanding down the East Coast into the Mid-Atlantic, two jurisdictions remain resistant to their financial allure – D.C. and Virginia – and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Maryland’s sixth casino, expected to be built in National Harbor, would only be about a mile from the borders of both Virginia and the District of Columbia. It’s expected to draw many customers from the nation’s capital and the Old Dominion state.
While both Virginia and D.C. have legalized some forms of gambling in the past (both have lotteries and the District recently legalized online gaming before repealing the law) neither has, nor is expected to have, an actual casino.
“There’s always been an attitude that the nation’s capital should not have a bricks-and-mortar casino,” said D.C. Councilman Michael A. Brown. Brown, who visits casinos himself and introduced the online gaming legislation, considers himself one of the more pro-gaming members of the council.
D.C. Councilman Jack Evans agreed with Brown, and noted that not only would the City Council have to pass legislation, but it would need approval from the U.S. Congress.
“Generally there is a lot of opposition in Congress to gambling in the nation’s capital, and among the residents, as well, in the District,” said Evans.
Evans, along with D.C. Councilman Marion Barry, introduced a bill in September that was meant to study how gaming in Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware affect the District. Although Evans said the bill will likely expire at the end of the year and not be reintroduced, he could see a benefit to a casino across the Potomac River in National Harbor.
“I think actually a National Harbor casino would be helpful to the city. You know it brings people to the region that might not come otherwise,” said Evans.
As for online gaming in the District, Brown said this is a good way to bring in tax revenue from the industry, without having a casino that “possibly would also bring what I think a lot of social activists are concerned about, a different kind of element to the city.”
“Keep in mind that it’s already going on in the District of Columbia. Thousands of our residents are playing right now, today, without any regulations and without the city reaping any of those revenue benefits,” said Brown.
In Virginia, the story is different, but the conclusion is the same: no casinos.
Toni-Michelle Travis, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, said this likely has to do with the Protestant tradition in the state.
“Many people would have reservations because of their religious beliefs,” said Travis.
Don Blake, chairman and president of the Virginia Christian Alliance, said his organization opposes gambling in the state because it damages individuals, families and culture, and is “against the principles in the Bible.”
“Gambling is a plague on people,” said Blake, who said the reason people do gamble is because they, “have desires that they can’t control sometimes.”
Even with a growing and more liberal population in the northern part of the state, Blake said the makeup of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia make potential casinos decades away.
Travis also noted the population boom in the northern part of the state, and said “this won’t be the only issue,” between this region and the rest of the state.
“I think very shortly the priorities of Northern Virginia will dominate the state versus the priorities of our more rural legislature,” said Travis.
The economic strength of the state, Travis said, is also something that should keep Virginia from needing to look to casinos for added revenue.
“We have a very balanced budget,” said Travis. “I think that would be a very last resort for legislatures to consider as a way to raise money.”
Despite this, Virginia State Sen. L. Louise Lucas has pre-filed a bill for the 2013 General Assembly session that would at least look at casinos in the state, albeit in a limited nature.
“It’s been so long since the question has come up,” said Robert Whitacre, who consults for Lucas on casinos.
Whitacre disagreed with the religious argument, saying that while that may have been true 10 or 15 years ago, it is not the case today. The best-case situation, Whitacre said, would be to authorize casino gaming in certain jurisdictions based on community support.
If casinos were to be legalized in either Virginia or D.C., casino companies would almost certainly jump at the opportunity to build, but they’re not trying to push the door open.
Karen Bailey, director of public affairs for Penn National Gaming, said the company has not to her knowledge made an effort to push for casinos in the District or Virginia, and that it is a “matter of local appetite.”
“We’re a company that’s always focused on expansion and new opportunities, so we never say no to examining new opportunities, but it’s too early for us to speculate of, you know, what we would do,” said Bailey.
Gordon Absher, vice president of public affairs at MGM Resorts International, the company that will likely build a casino in National Harbor, said there are a lot of misperceptions about gaming.
From his personal experience, Absher found that in Maryland the definition of a casino was a slot operation, whereas MGM is in the “destination resort business”. Absher said 60 percent of the revenue comes from non-gaming sources like hotel rooms, events and food, and this is, “one of the first things that we begin to communicate when a new market starts to consider bringing in gaming.”
Absher and Bailey both mentioned that their companies will not try and push their industry onto an uninterested public.
“We don’t create new markets,” said Absher.