RICHMOND — Music blared as more than a thousand people formed a long, giddy line along the front of a once-abandoned Kmart. Two racehorses paced the parking lot. A man in fox-hunting garb blew a bugle call. Cheers went up, dignitaries urged the crowd to “have some fun!” and the new Rosie’s Gaming Emporium threw open its doors.
“Virginia is boring,” Annie Randolph, 64, a retired health-care worker shouted as she jockeyed to get inside. She had arrived more than two hours early — thrilled, she said, to finally have fun gambling without traveling to Maryland or Las Vegas.
“Keeps me from doing housework!” she said with a laugh.
No, the General Assembly hasn’t made it legal to build casinos in Virginia. That debate will rage in next year’s legislative session.
But casino-style gambling has come to the Old Dominion anyway, in the form of electronic games that function almost exactly like slot machines.
It’s all tied to the legislature’s effort to revive Virginia’s once-mighty horse racing industry. In authorizing a deal last year to reopen the Colonial Downs track in New Kent County, the General Assembly approved off-track facilities featuring “historic horse racing” machines.
They aren’t called slot machines — lawmakers are still wrestling with how comfortable they are opening that door. Each machine taps into a database of some 90,000 past horse races and lets the player look at blind statistics to wager on unnamed horses that might win.
If all that is too cumbersome, you can just hit the button and let colorful cherries, 7s and other symbols spin and line up. That’s what almost everyone does. And judging from the Rosie’s facilities that have opened around the state, it’s going to be a big hit.
The first Rosie’s launched in April at the New Kent track between Richmond and Williamsburg. In May, its first full month in operation, that facility saw more than $58 million in wagers placed on its 600 machines.
A smaller Rosie’s has opened in the Roanoke area, and one is under construction in Hampton. Several other localities are vying for their own franchises, including Dumfries in Prince William County. In all, the General Assembly authorized up to 3,000 of the machines statewide. The Rosie’s in Richmond, which opened last week, has 700 of them.
This is a sharp departure for Virginia. Horse racing here dates to Colonial times, but the state is one of only 10 in the nation to resist casino-style gambling. Now, sparked by economic need, changing demographics and the success of the MGM National Harbor casino in nearby Maryland, the legislature seems to be warming to the idea.
Three struggling communities around the state — Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth — have petitioned for permission to pursue casinos, and the General Assembly agreed to take up the matter in January 2020.
The Pamunkey Indian tribe is also seeking to build a casino through its federal status, possibly in Norfolk or some other site in Hampton Roads. Lawmakers from that area are generally supportive.
More than a dozen gambling interests have hired Richmond lobbyists in the past two years, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
The rush has raised some concerns.
“I’m afraid of us doing too much, and it appears the locations are predominantly African American areas that are close to impoverished communities,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), who is head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
He said he’s worried the gaming centers will prey on people who can least afford to lose their meager resources.
“What we need to focus on now is what does gaming in the commonwealth look like . . . and what is going too far?” Bagby said. “I’m hoping to get more information related to the impact on individuals living paycheck to paycheck, and I would also like to have some conversations about making sure support is there” for people with gambling addictions.
The state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission is working on a study about casino gambling, due in December.
The partnership operating Colonial Downs has a significant head start through its rescue of the state’s primary horse racing track. That facility shuttered in 2014, but new owners offered to reopen if they could also build the off-track gambling centers to generate more revenue. The state agreed last year.
Racing resumes at Colonial Downs early next month. Between the track and the Rosie’s facilities, Colonial Downs is investing $300 million and creating 900 jobs around the state. It promises $25 million in yearly state tax revenue and $17 million annually to the localities where it operates.
Richmond officials are hoping the new Rosie’s and its 225 jobs will help revive a downtrodden strip of motels, pawnshops and used-car lots on the southern side of the James River.
At last week’s grand opening, the Colonial Downs group handed out oversize checks to several charities, including $10,000 to Feed More, a group that fights hunger, and $10,000 to Goodwill, which hosted a job fair to recruit Rosie’s workers.
No one seemed happier than Sonya Shaw, the principal of nearby Miles Jones Elementary School, who was there to accept a check for $25,000. Over the next five years, Colonial Downs has pledged $500,000 to the school.
“We are so appreciative of all the great things they’ve done for us so far,” said Shaw, who used an earlier installment to buy 6,048 books and plans to buy computers next. “We need the resources.”
Parents have not been concerned about partnering with a gambling operation, she said, and “I don’t think our kids really understand that it’s coming from here.”
The children were excited when the track brought ponies to the school for a special event, Shaw said, “but I think it was more of them just knowing that it was something fun, and not the gambling part.”
But the gambling part is what drew more than 1,200 people to last week’s opening. They streamed into the dark, cool building on a blazing summer day and took their places at machines with names such as Diva Dollars, Ninja Magic, Photo Finish and Super Vegas Royale. Staff members whizzed around with drinks and explained the machines to novices.
“It’s the best thing the city could’ve done for us,” said Bina Williams, 55, a retired postal worker who was given a T-shirt for being one of the first in line.
Jack Moody, 94, a World War II veteran who said he landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy during D-Day, was thrilled to see the Rosie’s open just a few miles from his home. Zipping inside on a motorized cart, Moody said he’d probably spend about six hours playing the machines.
“To win some money!” he said.