Local leaders are tight-lipped on whether Danville should have a casino.

“The chamber is not taking any position right now because of a lack of information on the specifics of what the impact would be locally,” said Alexis Ehrhardt, president and CEO of the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce.

Karl Stauber, president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation, also declined to reveal his thoughts on the topic.

“Until the [DRF] takes a position, I’m not going to have any public discussion about the casino,” Stauber said Thursday.

Legislation to allow five Virginia cities — including Danville — to begin pursuing casinos passed its first test in the General Assembly on Monday after lawmakers added an escape hatch that could let them change course next year.

The Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology voted 9-3-1 Monday to advance a casino bill that covers casino projects in Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth.

The legislation would require the five cities to put a question before voters on whether they would allow a casino.

The General Laws Committee voted to refer the legislation to the Senate Finance Committee for further discussion of its financial and regulatory implications, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Michelle Gowdy, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League, would not comment on the possibility of casinos in the commonwealth.

“We have stayed out of that fight and we have no comment at all,” Gowdy said in a voice message left for the Danville Register & Bee on Thursday.

Officials in other states that have legalized casinos said those types of resorts have benefitted their localities with increased investment, attraction of related industries and tax revenues available for projects.

Wico van Genderen, president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, said the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino resort in Luzerne County has had an economic impact of about $1.5 billion over 10 years.

The casino resort, which includes a horseracing track and other amenities, has about 1,600 employees, with 90 percent of hires coming from within 30 square miles around the property, he said. The average salary is nearly $50,000 per year, he said.

“We were circumspect about it,” van Genderen said of the time when the idea of a casino was first proposed. “Now as we look back, there’s been significant economic impact.”

Shelbyville, Indiana, has the Indiana Grand Racing & Casino resort, which includes high-stakes horseracing, said Mayor Tom DeBaun. It employs about 1,200 during full season and about 800 in the off months, he said.

The racetrack has been around since the 90s, and the casino — owned by Caesars Entertainment that owns Caesars Palace in Las Vegas — was built about 12 years ago, DeBaun said.

“They are probably one of our largest taxpayers,” he said. Shelbyville’s population is nearly 21,000.

Under a revenue-sharing agreement with the Indiana State Legislature, the town gets a percentage of average daily waging revenue not to exceed $3 million, DeBaun said. Shelbyville also receives a share of casino property tax, he said.

Waging and tax revenue has been spent on infrastructure and education programs, including one that incentivizes local high school graduates to attend their local community college, he said.

Other programs funded with money from waging revenues include an early-learning program for kids under 5 who are not ready for kindergarten and a youth assistance program to keep juveniles out of the court system, DeBaun said.

Shelbyville has about $8 million in wage revenue kept in reserve, he said.

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, which has a population of about 317,000, has received about $880 million in tax revenue from Mohegan Sun Pocono, van Genderen said. Tax revenue from slot machines and table games go into a shared account that’s used for community development projects.

The resort has also brought $650 million investment in the casino resort facility over the last decade, he added. It has attracted a hotel and dining and shopping amenities.

“It has become somewhat of a destination,” van Genderen said.

The region has three major interstates coming into the area and the casino resort is about 90 minutes from Philadelphia, two hours from New York and about four hours from Boston, he said.

In Shelbyville, DeBaun said the town created a casino overlay district that forbids establishments such as adult stores, check-cashing businesses and tattoo parlors in that area.

“We wanted more of a sense of integrity in the neighborhood,” he said.

The town wanted to have tight control over the type of development in the area around the casino, DeBaun said.

Shelbyville has other industries, as well, including nearly 6,000 manufacturing-based jobs, he said. Agriculture is another large employer.

Luzerne County’s unemployment rate has dropped from about 10 percent five years ago to less than 4 percent, von Genderen said. Besides the casino, which is just a part of the county’s puzzle for attracting development, the county is developing several industrial parks and has a transportation grid that appeals to a lot of businesses, he said.

As for Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam and other lawmakers have preferred holding off on major gambling legislation to allow time for a comprehensive study. Casino backers have urged the state to let their projects proceed quickly so Virginia doesn’t continue losing gambling dollars to other states.

The bill would let the five cities hold referendums this fall, while also ordering a study to be completed by Nov. 1.

The state would not give out any casino licenses until July 1, 2020, which would give lawmakers time to respond to the study’s findings and change the law accordingly in the 2020 legislative session.

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John Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at jcrane@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7987.

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