The Board of Commissioners in Nash County, one of three proposed counties to receive a commercial casino in North Carolina, decided Friday to hold a voter referendum on the issue.
Under a draft proposal by the North Carolina State Senate, a single developer would develop casinos in three counties – likely Nash, Anson and Rockingham –based on their locations and levels of relative economic distress.
The proposal does not require a referendum in any of the selected counties. House Speaker Tim Moore recently told reporters that regarding the selected counties, “the report back to me is that they support it.”
The proposal also includes a provision for a fourth casino that would be given to the Lumbee Tribe in the southeast part of the state. Residents who participated in an NCSharp survey supported casino expansion in North Carolina.
The four casinos in the bill would complement the state’s three tribal casinos:
- Harrah’s Cherokee in Cherokee;
- Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River in Murphy; and
- Catawba Two Kings Casino in King’s Mountain
Nash County’s casino credentials
In March, a Spectrum Gaming study proposed by Greater Carolina, a “forward-thinking, pro-free market conservative” group, identified the three aforementioned counties for potential North Carolina casino expansion.
The draft casino bill, which appears to follow the Spectrum study, set a variety of conditions for determining a suitable casino county, including:
- a location east of Interstate 77;
- bordering Interstate 95 or traversed by it;
- no more than 60 miles from an international airport;
- home to fewer than 100,000 people; and
- listed as a Tier-1 county, meaning it is “one of the 40 most economically depressed counties in the state.”
Nash, which is listed as a Tier-1 county by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, sits just to the east of Raleigh, which provides the county’s nearest international airport.
A location near the intersection of I-95 and State Route 64 was pegged in the Spectrum study for the Nash County site. That would situate a Nash County casino just northwest of Rocky Mount, the county’s largest city.
Commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of a referendum
As reported by the Rocky Mount Telegram, the special session held Friday by the Nash County Board of Commissioners resulted in a 6-1 vote in favor of putting the question of whether to build a casino in Nash County before county voters.
Support for casino expansion among the commissioners was mixed, but the consensus was best represented by Commissioner Fred Belfied, who said, “I do believe in hearing from the people.”
The lone commissioner opposing the referendum, Commissioner Marvin Arrington, voted against it because the question should be put solely before the voters in Rocky Mount, whose city limits the casino would be located.
Other commissioners who supported the referendum also supported the idea of a Rocky Mount vote.
Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson’s chief of staff, Cary Cox, told CBS17, “We do want to participate because this opportunity could change our city in so many great ways.”
Possible election dates
If Nash County decides to place the casino question on a voter ballot, the next county election would be the county primary election on March 5, 2024.
However, in a scenario where Rocky Mount voters see a ballot question about a casino in their city limits, the next Rocky Mount municipal elections will be held on Oct. 10.
As previously mentioned, the draft casino bill does not require a referendum for the advancement of commercial casinos in North Carolina. However, if the other proposed counties take Nash County’s lead and propose to put the casino question to voters, they could motivate lawmakers to re-draft the bill.
Time is running short for counties to act, for NC lawmakers to consider changes to a casino bill and for the entire general assembly to reach consensus on a state budget.
The current fiscal year for the state began July 1, and in lieu of a budget, the state is operating under a 2015 resolution allowing them to maintain the previous year’s spending quota while hammering out a new budget.
This stopgap gives lawmakers some leeway, but by mid-August the state plans to finalize their budget and make a definitive statement on the future of commercial casinos in the state.