A casino in Rockingham County, developed as part of a larger entertainment district, would become the largest employer in the county while likely increasing residential property values by more than 30% in the first two years.
Despite this and other positive economic impacts they would bring, North Carolina commercial casinos didn’t pass muster this legislative session, in part because of a perception that crime would rise in the area.
However, lawmakers laid out a casino expansion plan centered around rural tourism development in three of North Carolina’s most economically distressed counties – Anson, Nash and Rockingham – that could be taken up again when the legislature reconvenes for a shortened session after the March 2024 primary elections.
The state’s proposition goes beyond developing a casino and includes non-gaming entertainment venues as part of the larger casino district. With one “entertainment district” per county, this model has few comparables in the country, but fortunately, one of them is right across the border in Virginia.
The temporary Danville Casino, opened during the construction of the permanent Caesars Virginia in Danville, Va., provides an example of what casino development can do for a distressed community.
Rockingham County residents struggling to envision what a casino could mean for the county can see a glimpse of the future by taking the 45-minute drive across the border to Danville. The once-ignored River District of downtown Danville is now a thriving community where home values have risen dramatically thanks partly to casino development.
Property values would see dramatic growth from Rockingham casino
Suppose the same or similar language used in casino legislation from 2023 continues into 2024. In that case, casino development in Rockingham County will entail at least $500 million of private funding from a casino developer to build a mixed-use entertainment district on at least 100 acres of land.
By comparison, Caesars Virginia in Danville, Va., situated on 78 acres and set to open in 2024, cost $675 million to build.
Will North Carolina outspend Virginia on a casino within an hour of its neighbor? We don’t know how big the casino will be, but Caesars Virginia has estimated 1,300 employee hires while North Carolina casino legislation has required at least 1,750 jobs per casino.
Importantly, what does that mean for Rockingham County homeowners?
Danville and Madison (where a casino would most likely be situated in Rockingham County) represent rural communities under economic duress. Since revitalization has taken place in Danville, which includes the development of Caesars Virginia, home values have risen dramatically.
Per data from Redfin.com, the median sale price for a home in Danville was $170,000 in August. That’s an increase of 88.9% from a year ago before construction started at Caesars Virginia. Price per square foot sits at $104, up 22% from last year.
Shaunna Overman of the Overman Group is a realtor who’s sold over 100 properties in Rockingham County in the last three years. She also knows Danville well.
In her estimation, casino development in Danville spurred this spike in home values. Still, last year’s real estate market with historically low interest rates and limited inventory played a part as well.
With interest rates rising, North Carolina won’t see the same housing market spike as Danville. Still, it can likely expect home values to increase 30-40% in the first two years after breaking ground on a Rockingham casino.
Casino development means a focus on the community
Overman is from Rockingham, and she’s intimately aware of what the community needs. She also spends a lot of time in Danville and has seen the turnaround.
“Downtown Danville was ignored,” Overman said. “Maintenance projects were deferred and buildings were crumbling.”
She describes the distressed state of a small town that looked like the present-day status of her home county of Rockingham.
“But now, businesses, restaurants and coffee shops line the streets, and the economy looks promising in Danville.”
Such a steep rise in home values will lead to more tax revenue for the city, which will only continue this trend toward growth and revitalization.
That trend is what Overman and others would like to see in Rockingham, and, further, believe is absolutely possible.
Rockingham has the infrastructure but hasn’t built on it
“We already have really great infrastructure,” Overman said of Rockingham, “but we lack the industry.”
The county outlined a five-year Capital Improvement Plan in 2021 to renovate and add infrastructure and prepare for growth. The non-binding plan stimulates community-growth planning, allowing the county to allocate its budget around initiatives in the project.
But growth is hard to come by without industry. And rural communities get few shots at creating the kind of new industry that a resort casino and entertainment district would generate.
The current top three employers in Rockingham are:
– Rockingham County schools (1,509 employees).
– Wal-Mart (821).
– Unifi Inc. (794).
Should North Carolina pass a commercial casino bill in 2024 similar to those proposed this year, a Rockingham casino with 1,750 jobs would be the largest employer in the county.
If North Carolina doesn’t employ them, Virginia will
In filling the 400-plus positions at the Danville Casino and the 1,300 positions at the permanent Caesars Virginia Casino, managers at Caesars Virginia have dipped into the North Carolina labor force.
Pulling from the collegiate workforce in Greensboro and working with North Carolina Chambers of Commerce, Caesars is happily hiring North Carolinians who would drive an hour to Danville to work in a casino.
These are workers North Carolina lawmakers are attempting to keep in-state through draft casino legislation that stipulates that developers will be evaluated based on “the percentage of employees that will be permanent residents of [North Carolina].”
While some casino employees could commute from nearby cities like Greensboro, the reality is that casino development means people would be moving to Rockingham, whether that’s Madison or a site yet to be proposed.
Does Rockingham have the housing for this kind of growth?
“We’re similar to Danville when it started developing,” Overman says. “The homes aren’t here today, because there’s nothing to sustain it.”
She implies that casino development could be the driving force for this kind of growth.
“Rockingham is a county that needs tax dollars terribly,” she explains. “We had a house burn down less than a mile from the fire department because there wasn’t enough funding to keep it staffed.”
If the county doesn’t take steps to grow, the reality is that people won’t just miss out on the opportunity to gamble. When it comes to casino development, “no for now means we face a lack of resources,” Overman said.
Speculation and fear bottleneck the pathway to growth in Rockingham
Overman supports casino expansion, but some realtors do not over fear of the community backlash.
In August, a county commissioner’s meeting teemed with citizens concerned about casino expansion in Rockingham. The meeting required overflow rooms for all the people who came to, mainly, oppose a vote that would re-zone land in Madison for possible casino development.
The sentiment, as it often does, centered around crime and seediness and the community degradation brought on by a casino. That sentiment has staying power, especially in rural communities, and the effects have already stifled growth.
Roy Carroll, a Greensboro native and CEO of the Carroll Companies, has made a career by purchasing land cheap land and turning it into lucrative apartment complexes. Per Overman, Carroll recently pulled out of a development plan for million-dollar apartments in Rockingham over their potential proximity to a casino.
Fear of crime is greater than the actual crime at casinos
While some correlation exists between crime and casinos, it’s not the sort that leads to more significant community degradation, and the data bears this out.
In 2019, Danville conducted a casino impact study before construction started on the temporary Danville Casino.
The study analyzed 12 new and established casino markets around the country finding that there “seems to be very little deleterious impact on community services in areas that we surveyed in which a casino has opened, with public safety officials likening casinos to any other large business.”
In small communities where these casinos opened, they were considered “an asset” to the town or county.
While police and fire department incidents increased slightly (roughly accounting for 2%-3% of total calls) at these casinos, this typically came from EMS calls, drunk and disorderly conduct, and petty theft in the form of lost or stolen property.
One rural casino in particular, Plainridge Park Casino, in Plainville, Mass., reported data that, in the two years following the casino’s opening (2015-2017), it saw an increase in personal crime. However, crime in general in Plainville decreased. In the five years before Plainridge Park Casino opened, Plainville averaged 302 offenses per year. Two years after the casino’s opening that number dropped to 286 offenses.
Most importantly, none of the data reported by the casinos cited in the Danville study involved violent crime.
Matt Bell, public relations specialist with the Danville Police Department, echoed many of these sentiments.
“We’ve seen some theft of wallets and cases of cash vouchers being left behind,” Bell told NCSharp of crime associated with Danville Casino.
In the few months the casino has been open, they’ve had no reports of violent crime.
Fear of casinos an impediment to progress
This bottlenecking of progress out of fear of legal gambling simply doesn’t bear out.
A look at property values in Rockingham during the summer months in which the casino expansion debate reached a fever pitch indicates nothing unusual.
Home prices, as they do in summer months, steadily increased before dropping in September. Home sales didn’t fluctuate beyond the norm either. Whatever fear led people to protest so firmly against casino expansion didn’t extend into the real estate market.
But the correlation can exist. Just look at Danville. Casino development brings jobs (and very little crime). Workers buy homes. Property taxes fund growth.
Tax money invested in the revitalization and repurposing of distressed communities can turn them around and give them long, useful lifespans.