Could slot machines, blackjack and roulette tables be in the commonwealth’s future? Possibly. And we’re pleased state and local leaders will be giving the idea serious consideration in the months ahead.

Virginia is one step closer to casino gambling after Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation directing the government’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to undertake a comprehensive study of gaming regulations and report back to the General Assembly with its findings by Dec. 1. Included in the bill Northam signed is a framework for the state Lottery Board to oversee the casino gaming industry, as well as enabling legislation for three localities in the state to hold voter referenda on whether to allow casino gaming.

Danville, Bristol and Portsmouth have been identified by the state as economically challenged cities that are actively seeking to attract a casino resort to their areas. The federally recognized Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is not subject to state oversight, has also identified Richmond and Norfolk as potential sites for a casino it is interested in opening. To be eligible for a gaming license, the law states that any project must represent a minimum capital investment of $200 million in land, facilities, infrastructure, equipment and furnishings.

The Assembly didn’t make it easy for casino gaming to move forward, requiring the legislation be re-enacted by the 2020 session after the receipt of JLARC’s in-depth study of the industry and Virginia regulatory structure.

Leaders in Danville have extolled the gaming industry as one among many that could give a much-needed economic boost to a region still recovering from the loss of the textile and tobacco industries.

Chmura Economics and Analytics is a well-respected, Richmond-based consulting firm that has worked with many private and public organizations in the commonwealth. In a study on the economic impact of a casino in Southside Virginia, Chmura laid out some pretty impressive numbers that no responsible public official should ignore. According to Chmura, a casino resort with a hotel, restaurants, entertainment and convention space would bring a one-time fiscal boost of about $118.7 million to Danville, along with about 200 jobs for renovation and construction. If a casino were to open in 2022, the earliest the Assembly’s timeframe would allow, tax revenues generated would be more than $12.1 million, rising to $20.3 million by 2028.

Folks, those are impressive numbers, no matter how you cut it.

Since the idea of a casino resort in Southside was broached last year as Danville leaders were mulling economic development ventures for the next decade or so, there has been a lively and ongoing debate in the community and on the Opinion page of the Register & Bee in letters to the editor over the merits — and dangers — of casino gaming. Objections have focused on the religious and moral grounds for opposing gambling, while supporters of the idea, saying it is not government’s place to decide which legal behavior is “good” or “bad” for individuals, contend the economic boost to the region is just impossible to ignore.

We tend to agree. If a person wants to enjoy a weekend getaway for a few games of blackjack or tossing the dice for a game of craps, along with dinner and a show, why should government decide for him that that’s immoral? In the 1987 statewide referendum that established the Virginia Lottery, opponents used much the same reasoning against the Lottery as we are now hearing about casinos.

And when the first lottery ticket in Virginia was sold on Sept. 20, 1988, did the sky come crashing down? Of course not. All that happened was that it was now legal for folks who enjoy a game of chance to do so legally, with the state getting a cut of the action. As with the approval several years ago of liquor by the drink in restaurants, it would be an individual decision whether to participate. If you don’t approve of drinking, don’t do it, but don’t deny someone else the freedom to have a glass of wine with his steak at his favorite local restaurant. And if you don’t approve of casino gambling, don’t frequent the resort, but don’t bar someone else from enjoying the pastime if that’s what he likes.

No local voter referendum could be held until the Assembly re-enacts the bill and JLARC’s report is published. (The deadline for any local vote would be Jan. 1, 2021, and the state Lottery Board can’t issue a gaming license before July 1, 2020.)

Between now and then, we urge local residents to investigate the casino resort industry. Talk to friends and neighbors who may hold opinions different from yours. And if Danville ultimately decides to hold a casino referendum, be an informed voter.

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