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Senator makes case for casino in Tysons as part of future entertainment district

A train pulls into the Spring Hill Metro station in Tysons (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

If Fairfax County were to get a casino, state Sen. Dave Marsden would prefer to see it in Tysons, not Reston, as has reportedly been proposed.

The prospect of a casino has drawn strong pushback from both residents and some elected officials, but Marsden argues that the county needs to consider all options to diversify its commercial tax base, as the office market continues to lag in the pandemic’s wake.

While Tysons has gotten more residents over the past decade, the area’s generally commercial makeup and four Metro stations would make it “the ideal place” for an entertainment district that could include a casino, Marsden says.

“That’s becoming Fairfax County’s downtown, and we want to locate it on the Silver Line because that’s what the Silver Line was built for,” the senator told FFXnow. “…It wasn’t just to bring in commuters from Loudoun County or to get people to the airport. It was designed also to allow for higher density development: high-rise apartments and office buildings and what have you.”

Marsden, who represents parts of Burke, Centreville and Annandale in the 37th Senate District, and Del. Wren Williams (R-9) filed identical bills in January that would’ve added Fairfax County to the small list of Virginia localities authorized to consider hosting a casino.

Though the legislation was quickly withdrawn, the subject reemerged late last month when Patch reported that the developer Comstock hopes to build a casino near the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station, where it has been constructing the massive Reston Station neighborhood.

A member of the Senate finance committee, Marsden confirmed to FFXnow that he met with Comstock twice — once while drafting his original bill and once since then. He says he otherwise hasn’t been approached by anyone about a casino in Tysons or anywhere else in Fairfax County.

Comstock doesn’t have any properties in Tysons right now, but it pitched a redevelopment of the Koons auto dealerships at 2000 and 2050 Chain Bridge Road last year as part of the county’s site-specific plan amendment (SSPA) process. The nomination didn’t advance after county staff determined a comprehensive plan change isn’t necessary to allow mixed-use development on the site.

The developer — which donated $10,000 to Marsden’s reelection campaign on June 22, per the Virginia Public Access Project — didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

Marsden says he’s “certainly very strongly looking at” re-introducing the casino bill in the 2024 General Assembly session if he wins the election for the newly created 35th District, though it likely won’t be identical to the one introduced this year.

“I do want to talk to some of our elected folks in Fairfax County to see how they would want the bill structured, to take a look at it,” he said.

He stresses that the goal of the bill isn’t to impose a casino on the county, but rather, to give the county an option that’s currently off limits.

As a Dillon Rule state, Virginia localities only have the powers explicitly granted to them by the General Assembly, an approach that Fairfax County officials argue limits their ability to do everything from exploring different revenue sources to lowering speed limits on dangerous roads.

If Marsden’s bill gets adopted by the General Assembly, the county would be required to hold a referendum asking voters whether a casino should be permitted.

“[Comstock’s] idea for an entertainment district, I think, is a reasonable idea that the county needs to consider,” Marsden said. “Ultimately speaking, I will not make the decision as to whether Fairfax County has a casino or where it’s located, but merely give them the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.”

Tysons elected officials and candidates weigh in

While some Reston representatives, including Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn and retiring Del. Ken Plum, have expressed vocal opposition to the possibility of a Silver Line casino, Tysons area officials contacted by FFXnow mostly offered more circumspect responses.

Echoing earlier comments, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said he “would strongly oppose any legislation” stripping the county’s land use authority, but declined to take a position on the idea of a casino.

“There has been no casino proposal submitted to the County, therefore there is nothing to take a position on,” McKay said in a statement. “…Even if a referendum was approved, and [a] casino proposal were to be submitted to the County, it would be subject to Fairfax County’s full land use process including all comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance requirements and the associated public engagement and public hearings before approval.”

Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik, whose district includes most of Tysons, said she’s open to discussing any proposal that comes into her office, but is “awfully skeptical” this one will come to pass.

“If the residents of Providence District were to pass a Casino Referendum, that’s one thing, but otherwise, this seems like a whole lot of nothing,” Palchik said by email.

With Tysons’ current senator, Janet Howell, not seeking reelection, the area will be represented next year by either Democrat Saddam Azlan Salim or Republican Ken Reid, who are vying to succeed Sen. Chap Petersen in the redrawn 37th District.

Salim’s campaign said he hasn’t taken an official position on a Fairfax County casino, but the financial consultant is “listening and talking to constituents about the issue.”

“It’s important that the people of the 37th district have an opportunity to have dialogue with their candidates for elected office and make their views known, so that’s what Saddam Salim is focused on right now,” a spokesperson for Salim’s campaign said.

Reid, a former Loudoun County supervisor, took a more definitive stance.

“I don’t see a need for casinos anywhere in Fairfax County as there are so many cost-of-living and quality-of-life problems that one-party Democrat rule has failed to address,” he said, citing “exorbitant” highway tolls, a lack of affordable housing, crime and high taxes among the issues he feels have gone unaddressed.

The Virginia Lottery reported this summer that initial revenue from gambling at the state’s three opened casinos has exceeded projections, collectively generating $308 million by the end of June. Marsden says the resulting tax revenue could help Fairfax County address needs, such as schools or Metro funding, without further burdening the residential real estate tax base.

“Things change and you have to respond to them, and the big change right now is commercial real estate is collapsing, and that’s because of the pandemic,” Marsden said. “And because of the pandemic, people are working from home and not using Metro, and all of a sudden…the amount of money we have to put into Metro is going to go dramatically up, and we have to prepare for the future as to how we’re going to pay for that. So, let’s let Fairfax County decide what it is they want to do to pay for that. They may say no to a casino. They may say yes to something else, but I’m just here to give them as many options as they feel necessary.”

While it had no comment specifically on a casino, the Tysons Community Alliance says entertainment “is an important part of the Tysons community dialogue about the future of visitation and hospitality in Tysons.”

A market study that the community improvement organization released in August suggested more “experiential entertainment,” such as climbing gyms or The Boro’s upcoming Sandbox VR gaming facility, could help its retail sector compete in the post-pandemic world.

“The success of our Tysons Fall Mixed Market is a clear indication that local residents are interested in and seeking more experiential entertainment,” TCA CEO Katie Cristol said by email. “We also are collectively focused on the recovery of the hotel market here; given the slow return of business travel, that means supporting more leisure trips and supporting Tysons as a hospitality destination for entertainment, too.”

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