The Rockingham County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday in favor of a rezoning petition that would convert 192 acres of land to commercial use for the likely development of a casino entertainment district.
The parcel of land, located south of Madison off Ram Loop and US Highway 220, sits adjacent to residential and commercial land, including Camp Carefree, a camp for children with critical illnesses and disabilities.
NC Development Holdings, on behalf of Maryland developer The Cordish Companies, made the request. Will Quick, a Raleigh lawyer, speaking on behalf of the company, appealed to the community growth that would come from the “high-quality mixed-use development.”
The result of the meeting comes in the waning weeks of the legislative session, where the Legislature is still hammering out the details of a state budget that could include the legalization of North Carolina casinos.
Ruling does not open the gates for casino development
The commission’s ruling does not open the gates for The Cordish Companies to develop a casino.
That would first necessitate a law change by the state Legislature. A draft casino bill has been proposed as part of the Appropriations Act, the state’s budget bill, and that bill could provide such a change.
The proposed casino legislation would authorize four new casinos in the state – in Rockingham, Nash and Anson counties, and in the southeast, under the authority of the Lumbee Tribe. Further, the act would do so without the need for any public vote from the counties or cities in which the casinos would be located.
Committee Chair Mark Richardson expressed this to the audience of more than 1,000 people who filled the committee chamber plus six overflow rooms and an outside area when stating, “Nothing will change after today because of this vote.”
Richardson’s statement came before each commissioner presented their thoughts on the rezoning request and cast their vote. Those in attendance viewed the vote as a foregone conclusion. In fact, Richardson’s statement led to audible groans from the audience.
No mention of casinos by the proponent of rezoning
Quick, the lawyer presenting the rezoning proposal, carefully avoided all references to casino development in explaining the expansion.
Instead, he focused on community growth brought on by the mixed-use development, including increased property values, more entertainment options and overall economic prosperity “in the foreseeable future.”
Along with talking around any casino-focused development, Quick never referred to his “client” by name but discussed their experience developing the kind of mixed-use entertainment districts proposed for the Rockingham County site.
The committee room, teeming with protesters against the rezoning request, was not dissuaded by the avoidance of any casino language. They carried signs specifically calling for “No Casinos” in the community and chided Quick when he avoided discussing casinos or his client directly.
Sheriff Sam Page spoke first against the petition, citing the various crimes associated with casino expansion – drugs, gun violence and trafficking – and asked the commission to vote on the “quality of life” of the residents of Rockingham County.
Other community members followed, all concerned with the proximity of a casino to neighborhoods and the negative impact the casino would have on community culture.
Commission’s appeal to property rights left the audience unswayed
Each of the five commissioners offered their rationale in advance of the vote, and many appealed to the right of a property owner to do what is in their best interest, going so far as to invoke the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution’s “life, liberty and property” clause.
They also reminded the audience that community members had already voted on the utility upgrades to the region in expectation of economic development of the area, and this rezoning was in keeping with those upgrades.
All five members gave a unanimous voice vote in favor of the rezoning request. While there were no no-votes, the audience offered its own chorus of nays as the commissioners voted.
After the vote was cast, audience members could be heard shouting, “We’ll vote you out,” as commissioners gaveled the session closed.
North Carolina casino expansion still up in the air in 2023
While Rockingham County residents opposed to casino expansion may feel like they lost the battle, the question of whether the state will legalize commercial casinos in 2023 is very much up in the air.
House Speaker Tim Moore has indicated that casino language, while being circulated in draft bill form around the conference committee finalizing the state budget, has not been added to the official budget bill.
Further, under the draft casino bill, a single developer would be allowed to build a casino resort in all three locations. The Cordish Companies, with the money it’s donated to North Carolina politicians and its victory in getting the Rockingham parcel of land rezoned, may look like the inheritor of North Carolina’s casino development license. In reality, it would likely not be the only developer bidding for the right to develop casinos in North Carolina.
Should the state legalize commercial casinos through the state budget or hold off until the next legislative session to draft a standalone casino bill, North Carolinians concerned that the issue is all but resolved should know that that is not the case. Many questions remain about how the state will carve the pathway to commercial casino expansion.
A recent NCSharp survey found that 45% of North Carolinians support casino expansion, with increased state revenue being the biggest reason for supporting the expansion.