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Virginia Senate bill launches effort to build a casino in Tysons Corner

MGM National Harbor's casino that sits across the Potomac River from Northern Virginia is taking away tax dollars that could go to Fairfax, says Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax). (Alex Brandon/AP)
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A Virginia Senate bill filed this week lays the groundwork for a casino to be built in Fairfax County — an idea floating around since last January, when similar legislation was put forth before it was quickly withdrawn amid an intense backlash from neighborhood groups.

This time, the bill sponsored by Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) has more support, with proponents arguing it could generate as much as $155 million in annual state tax revenue and create at least 3,200 jobs to help Northern Virginia overcome the lingering economic effects of the pandemic.

Marsden selected Tysons Corner — home to several Fortune 500 companies and towering residential apartment developments — for a proposed entertainment complex that could also include a conference center and a concert venue if Fairfax voters approve the idea in a countywide referendum.

The plan aims to blunt the cascading impacts of a shift to remote work that have fomented uncertainty for the county’s finances and for Tysons, which was remade in the past decade to function as Fairfax’s more urban downtown. Office vacancies in Fairfax are at a 10-year high, at nearly 17 percent.

He helps others see his vision of a redeveloped Tysons Corner

Meanwhile, the MGM National Harbor hotel and casino that sits across the Potomac River from Northern Virginia is bustling, taking away tax dollars that could go to Fairfax, Marsden said.

In trying to give Fairfax authority to pursue its own casino, “my goal is to provide my county with options as to how to look at its future and its future economic growth,” he said.

Virginia has four casinos approved — all outside the D.C. metropolitan area — with a fifth allowed under existing law. Marsden’s bill and a separate bill filed earlier this month by Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) calling for a casino to be built in Petersburg would mean expanding the law to allow six casinos, new Senate Majority Leader Scott A. Surovell said.

Such efforts begin as pledges to bring prosperity to struggling communities with extra tax revenue and a boost to surrounding businesses but are almost always met with fears about traffic, concerns about crime and the stigma that comes with gambling addiction.

In November, voters in Richmond rejected the idea to host the state’s fifth casino for the second time in three years.

Marsden’s bill — which, among other things, requires that the proposed entertainment complex be located outside of the Beltway and near the Silver Line to help boost ridership — generated both opposition and support even before it was filed on Wednesday.

In December, the town council in Vienna, which includes a portion of Tysons, unanimously voted to oppose any plans for a casino in the county.

“A casino in Tysons would not align with the community values in Vienna,” Linda Colbert, the town’s mayor, said in a statement. “With the location in such proximity to the Town of Vienna, we are very concerned with the harmful economic and wellness impacts to our residents.”

The veteran senator first tested casino legislation last January, pitching Reston as a potential site. Local homeowner groups and local county Supervisor Walter L. Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) quickly opposed it, prompting Marsden to withdraw that version of his bill a few days after introducing it.

Marsden has since received $10,000 in campaign donations from the Comstock development company, which he has said pushed for the legislation; a political action committee created by the company’s chief financial officer donated $24,000, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

Comstock officials did not respond to messages seeking comment. Marsden said the donations did not influence his desire to provide the county with another option for economic development, noting that his campaign donated nearly $300,000 last year to help other Democratic candidates around the state win their elections.

“I didn’t need the money to run my own campaign,” he said. “I’ve provided my county with an option. It’s up to them to decide. It’s not going to break my heart one way or the other. But I just want to look to the future of a county that is facing some challenges.”

But the influx of money and an additional $85,000 donated by the same PAC to the election campaign of Surovell (D-Fairfax) — who supports Marsden’s bill — further inflamed the opposition.

The McLean Citizens Association, an influential civic group whose members also live in or near Tysons, expressed its opposition earlier this month.

“Many of our members and residents have contacted MCA Board members to express their opposition to allowing casinos to be operated in Fairfax County,” the organization said in a news release. “MCA is watching this closely.”

Under the provisions of the legislation, the county Board of Supervisors would have to vote to formally request that a countywide referendum on the matter be held — allowing the board a level of veto power.

Fairfax officials said they don’t intend to oppose the bill but expressed some frustration over not having been consulted in advance. They also questioned the impact on traffic in the already congested area and how much of the state gaming tax revenue generated from the site would go toward the county.

Virginia law allows localities to collect 6 percent of the first $200 million in gross receipts generated by a gaming operator and as much as 8 percent after those receipts exceed $400 million. The state’s cut climbs from 18 percent of the first $200 million in receipts to as much as 30 percent after they exceed $400 million.

“I’m not interested in continuing to be the ATM for the state and dealing with the impacts of a casino,” said Jeffrey C. McKay (D), chair of the county board. “On the other hand, if that amount of money would come to the county, you know, that’s a substantial amount of money, enough to say: ‘Hey, if we get that kind of revenue living with a casino, it might be worth it.’ But we don’t know that and that’s the key to this whole thing.”

Ultimately, if the bill passes the General Assembly and the county board is satisfied with its language, McKay said, he would be willing to put the question to Fairfax voters.

Both sides are already organizing lobbying efforts to sway state lawmakers and public opinion.

A public relations firm working for groups opposed to Marsden’s bill has been circulating a poll showing that 70 percent of 250 likely voters in Tysons surveyed are strongly opposed to having a casino in their community.

Meanwhile, a coalition of groups in support of the project — including Comstock and labor unions in favor of what proponents say could be as many as 4,400 jobs that would be created — is preparing to launch its own lobbying effort, according to a spokesman for those organizations.

Surovell said the need for a casino in Tysons seems obvious when considering the region’s ailing office real estate market and the fiscal pressure that creates for the county in terms of lost commercial tax revenue.

Also, he argued, many Virginians are already traveling across the Potomac to gamble at the MGM casino.

“I live right across the river from that and when I go out and walk my dog at night, I see the big gleaming ‘MGM’ over there and it always has me imagining a sucking sound of about $150 million Virginia dollars going over the bridge every year into Maryland to pay for their schools,” Surovell said.