Mayor Alonzo Jones needed just a few words to sum up the mood of city officials Monday.

"I wish you all could see the smile on my face," Jones, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus, told a crowd gathered at at the site of the former Dan River Inc. finishing building in Schoolfield.

He then removed the mask to speak into the microphone as part of a specially called economic development meeting.

It turns out that Caesars Entertainment could bring a casino resort to the site — city leaders are in negotiations with the Paradise, Nevada-based company to be Danville’s casino operator.

If Danville City Council selects the company from among four candidates, Caesars would be expected to invest more than $400 million and create 1,300 jobs with competitive benefits packages and average pay between $35,000 and $47,000 annually, officials announced.

"We are incredibly excited to be part of your future here in Danville," said Jacqueline Grace, vice president and assistant general manager at the Horseshoe Baltimore resort in Maryland, which is part of Caesars Entertainment. "We are going to build an amazing project."

Caesars Entertainment’s resorts operate under Caesars, Harrah’s and Horseshoe brand names.

The company has plans to build a facility with 500 hotel rooms, a 35,000-square-foot conference center, a 2,500-seat live entertainment venue, restaurants and bars, 2,000 slot machines, 75 table games, 16 poker tables and a sportsbook to wager on various sports competitions.

The project is expected to be complete in 2023 and is anticipated to generate 900 construction jobs.

Schoolfield is significant as one of the largest textile mill villages in Virginia and the South. The village was founded as an independent company town in 1903 by Dan River Inc., which owned all the houses and other buildings in the town. The city of Danville annexed Schoolfield in 1951.

The industrial site in Schoolfield covers about 85 acres and roughly 700,000 square feet of structures, including the 617,000-square-foot former finishing plant, which can be seen from West Main Street in Schoolfield.

Danville City Manager Ken Larking said officials hope the building could be redeveloped and used as part of the casino project.  

A master plan is in the works to possibly turn the old Dan River Inc. Schoolfield industrial site into a mixed-use campus. Danville’s economic development office and the Industrial Development Authority contracted with WRT LLC, a Philadelphia-based urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architecture firm, to create the plan. 

"Caesars will be heavily involved in that process from this point on [if the city selects Caesars]," Larking told the Danville Register & Bee. 

The state has a 45-day window to review the city's choice of casino provider once Danville officials notify the Virginia Lottery Board. June 1 is the earliest date the city can submit its choice to the board.  

Larking told the crowd the project would bring in $34 million in annual revenue for Danville. Of that, more than $30 million would come from gaming taxes and supplemental payments to the city, and $4 million would be generated from real estate, meals, sales and lodging taxes. 

In addition, Caesars' proposal includes at least $20 million in upfront payments to the city to cover land acquisition and other public investments. 

"Unlike most economic development projects, this one does not involve any incentives from the city or state," Larking said in a prepared statement. "It is our intention to use a portion of these upfront funds to begin construction of a new police headquarters and to spur private development in the White Mill."

The White Mill on Memorial Drive across from the YMCA has been a site considered for a casino resort. On Sunday, the day before the city's announcement, Peninsula Pacific in Richmond and The Alexander Group in Madison, Wisconsin, ran an ad in the Danville Register & Bee urging voters to convince City Council members to support their plans for a casino project at the White Mill property.  

In the first week of March, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a chain of stay-at-home orders and shuttered businesses across the nation, city officials heard closed-door presentations from four casino companies, the finalists that responded to a December request for proposals to bring a gambling facility here.

Under the conditions of that request for proposals, potential operators had to choose a possible casino location for either the White Mill property or in Schoolfield. Each candidate could also pick one other site in the city.

City officials initially expected to pick a company in April, but the pandemic delayed that decision. A formal council vote to select a casino operator could now come as early as this month and would be no later than sometime in early June. 

"We look forward to working with city officials, as well as the people of Danville, on the next steps to advance a project that will benefit the city for many decades to come," Caesars Entertainment CEO Tony Rodio said in a news release. "We are excited to bring quality jobs and unforgettable guest experiences to Danville, as we do at our 37 properties across the United States."

It was in December 2018 when Delegate Danny Marshall, R-Danville, approached city officials about the possibility of the Virginia General Assembly considering whether to allow certain cities to have a referendum on casinos. During his remarks at the announcement Monday, Marshall encouraged city residents to research the issue of whether to allow a casino before voting on the question in November. 

"I would encourage you to do your homework so you're an informed voter in November," Marshall said, adding that town halls will be held all over the city on the issue. 

The project would also result in a partnership with Averett University, which would include the school's first hospitality program and internships with Caesars, Averett president Tiffany Franks told attendees. 

"This is a great time for great news, and this is truly great news," Franks said of the city's announcement.  

Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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