Rockingham County Casino Expansion Debate Gets Contentious—And Litigious

Fierce opposition to plans to build a casino in Rockingham County took a heated, litigious turn recently with a lawsuit filed by a former county commissioner against two current commission members.

It is the second anti-casino lawsuit filed in less than a year in the county. However, this time, the allegations have taken a personal turn as Craig Travis accuses his former colleagues of defamation.

The controversy in Rockingham County is part of a statewide debate about North Carolina casino expansion.

Lawsuit alleges libel, slander, and property damage

Travis, a former Rockingham County commissioner, filed the suit against commissioners Kevin Berger and Mark Richardson, the North Carolina Conservatives Fund, Atlas Political Consulting LLC, and GOPAC Inc. Berger is the son of pro-casino advocate and State Sen. Phil Berger, who represents Rockingham County.

Travis was a commissioner from 2011-22 and says he didn’t seek re-election after that because of his belief in term limits. However, he ran again this past year. He claims he jumped into the race because residents opposed to building a casino in their county reached out to him. He missed out on competing in the Republican primary by just three votes, coming in right behind Berger.

In his lawsuit, he accuses the defendants of inappropriate actions, including closed-door meetings and accepting donations from Cordish Companies lobbyists. Cordish Companies is a Maryland-based casino developer that has donated to at least nine North Carolina politicians, including Sen. Berger.

Travis claims his anti-casino stance led to misleading and defamatory campaign messages distributed by his enemies, including a video clip of him edited to suggest that he intended to raise taxes falsely. He also denies accusations made in mailers by his foes that he opposed Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office budget increases.

Additionally, Travis alleges that Commissioner Don Powell falsely accused him of vandalizing a vehicle, and Diane Parnell, chairwoman of the Rockingham County Republican Party, accused him of stealing campaign signs. In Travis’s opinion, all of these actions amounted to a smear campaign against him. The lawsuit filing was very specific:

“The false statements made about Mr. Travis in the false attack ads, Facebook posts, email, and other communications described herein constitute more than the mere vituperation and name calling that is characteristic of political campaigns and protected by the First Amendment. These false statements were made with actual malice and intended to harm Mr. Travis’s reputation in Rockingham County by lowering Mr. Travis in the estimation of potential voters in the 2024 Board of Commissioners election through deliberate deception and deterring them from supporting his campaign.”

In the spring elections, Powell was voted out.

It’s not the first Rockingham County anti-casino lawsuit

In 2023, Sen. Berger backed a failed effort to legalize gambling expansion that would’ve included approving a casino for Rockingham County. His son was among the commissioners involved in closed-door meetings about rezoning 192 acres of land that would be the site of the future casino development. Commissioner Berger and his colleagues unanimously approved a petition in favor of rezoning.

The next month, the owners of a camp for critically ill, disabled, and special needs children that is adjacent to the rezoned property filed a lawsuit against Rockingham County. A judge dismissed the lawsuit this past April, ruling that the court didn’t have jurisdiction in the case.

Casino issue may be too hot for politicians to touch in election year

While 54% of North Carolinians favor legalizing more casinos, a large chunk of the population, 35%, is opposed to expansion.

Casino expansion is a hot-button issue with little to no chance of seeing the light of day in the current shortened 2024 legislative session, which will probably end in July. Furthermore, there is dissension within both major parties on the issue.

Given that Rockingham County residents protested in person to rezoning land to build a gambling venue, politicians may be wary of pushing too hard for fear of upsetting constituents and risking their political futures in this election year.


Image Credit: Shutterstock

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Cheryl Coward

Cheryl Coward started her career as a news reporter in Washington, DC. She's a die-hard women's basketball fan and founded the website as a result of that passion. She loves writing about sports on all levels and has previous experience covering sports betting regulations, operator marketing campaigns and women's sports gambling topics.