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Fairfax County casino bill advances on tie vote to full Senate committee

State Sen. Dave Marsden argue for his bill to make Fairfax County eligible for a casino before the state Senate’s subcommittee on gaming (via Senate of Virginia)

Updated at 6 p.m.The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee voted 10-4 with one abstention this afternoon to report Senate Bill 675 to the finance committee, which is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, Jan. 30.

The committee will review the bill and could potentially kill it, but state Sen. Dave Marsden, who’s on the committee, says he’s confident it will pass.

Earlier: A bill that could allow a casino in Fairfax County will get a full state Senate committee hearing today (Wednesday) after just barely advancing out of a subcommittee yesterday.

The subcommittee on gaming was evenly split on state Sen. Dave Marsden’s proposal to make the county the sixth locality in Virginia eligible to host a casino, joining Bristol, Portsmouth, Danville, Norfolk and — for now — Richmond.

As promised, Marsden (D-35) put forward a substitute bill yesterday that narrowed the potential sites for the future casino down to Tysons, excluding Reston in response to lobbying by local residents and civic organizations like Reston Association.

Senate Bill 675 now states that the casino should be within two miles of a “regional enclosed mall” that’s at least 1.5 million square feet in size, a change from the initial version filed last week that said the site should be in two miles of a “major shopping destination.”

Other criteria were unchanged, including that it must be a quarter-mile from a Metro Silver Line station, part of a mixed-use development and outside of the Capital Beltway (I-495).

Though an exact location isn’t mentioned in the legislation, Marsden confirmed to FFXnow last week that developer Comstock is targeting the former Aston Martin and Bentley dealership near the Spring Hill Metro station for an entertainment complex with a casino, concert venue and conference center.

Before the subcommittee, which was chaired by Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-29), Marsden made the case that revenue from the casino could help “resurrect Fairfax County’s economy” from a stagnant office market that has squeezed the commercial tax base.

Tysons in particular is seeing a 20% office vacancy rate, and foot traffic to office buildings is just 70% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a market study that the Tysons Community Alliance released last summer. Marsden noted that placing a casino on the Silver Line would make it accessible to visitors in D.C. and Maryland as well as to the west in Loudoun County.

“It’s actually closer than MGM [National Harbor],” Marsden said. “It would be easy for people to come, and we’re also not just envisioning a casino here. What we’re talking about is a conference center that does not exist in Fairfax County. We’re also talking about a hotel and concert venue.”

A few people spoke in support of the bill, including Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Julie Koons, who said the proposed development could “contribute an estimated $2 billion to the region and would bring thousands of new jobs to the county.”

Benita Thompson-Byas, executive vice president of Thompson Hospitality, testified that new revenue sources are needed for the county and the hospitality industry, which was hit hard by the pandemic. The Reston-based company, whose restaurants include Big Buns Damn Good Burgers and Matchbox Pizza, would be a minority partner in the development, she said.

A McLean resident who said he owns and runs a commercial landscaping company advocated for the bill as a way to give Fairfax County residents a say, since voters would have to approve a referendum before a casino is officially authorized.

“This bill provides a much better solution to Northern Virginia’s future than raising business or property taxes or reducing services,” he said.

Highlighting provisions that support labor and minority-owned businesses, Sen. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2) said she would support the legislation to authorize a referendum so that local voters can decide what to do.

“If people in this area don’t want a casino, they will vote in the negative,” Carroll Foy said.

While no one spoke in person to oppose SB 675, multiple subcommittee members said they had received “hundreds” of concerned emails, letters and calls from local residents and groups, including the McLean Citizens Association and the Great Falls Civic Association, which have put out statements urging the General Assembly not to approve the bill.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-39), whose district extends into Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners, said that, after meeting with the “proponents of this arrangement,” he believes “a casino could be a real opportunity in Fairfax County,” but he questioned the county government’s lack of involvement, noting that previous efforts to allow casinos in Virginia were led by the localities.

A woman representing Fairfax County told the subcommittee that the county hasn’t taken an official stance on the casino proposal. Its interest right now is primarily maintaining its local authority.

“What I saw of it, it looked like it could be a good location,” Ebbin said. “I’m not going to be comfortable supporting it without the local government more actively involved.”

The bill advanced out of the subcommittee on a 4-4 vote, a division that stood in contrast with unanimous support for a preceding bill to swap Richmond with Petersburg as one of Virginia’s five casino-eligible host cities. A Petersburg official and union representatives spoke in favor of that legislation.

S.B. 675 will be presented today to the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology, where it must get support from a majority of members to stay alive.

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