If economic development is a gamble, a majority of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors is rolling the dice in support of Rosie's Gaming Emporium coming to Madison Heights.
The board voted 3-0 Tuesday, with Chair Jennifer Moore absent and Vice Chair David Pugh abstaining, to approve a resolution expressing formal support of Colonial Downs Group building a new Rosie's facility in the Seminole Plaza Shopping Center in Madison Heights.
The resolution is a symbolic gesture for county officials, backing a potential business that has sparked much debate in the county. Opponents raised concerns of legalized gambling bringing detrimental effects to the Amherst community and supporters point to an economic boost many say is much needed. The business's fate in Amherst ultimately lies with local voters as a referendum is slated for the Nov. 2 election to decide whether pari-mutuel wagering is allowed in the county.
The board took public comments on the matter at Tuesday's meeting and a dozen speakers gave their input.
Drew Wade, who is running unopposed for the board's District 5 seat that represents the area Rosie's proposes to locate in, said he doesn't support it but respects others' views. He addressed negative consequences he said Rosie's would bring and asked the board to remain neutral on the matter and not pass a resolution of support.
"Let the people choose without weight from the board," Wade said while urging residents to do research and not take the referendum vote lightly. "Ignorance can't be an excuse when the outcome will have far-reaching effects."
Lloyd Fulcher, a lifelong county resident, said if Rosie's is established residents will gamble living wages and families will suffer as a result. He also described the business as a "security risk" for the county.
"My ancestors who built this county would never support legalized gambling in this county," Fulcher said. "...We are better than this."
Amherst resident Gene Drake encouraged the board to attend a Sept. 30 rally planned at Temple Baptist Church opposing Rosie's coming to the county with a speaker set to addressing "predatory" gambling.
"It's a naked money grab," Drake said.
Several residents said the business would bring much-needed jobs, dining and entertainment options and tax revenue, strengthen the tax base and ease the burden on county taxpayers as county government invests in infrastructure needs.
A few residents said the county needs to be progressive in attracting business and making Amherst a destination rather than a "drive through" area that struggles to keep residents.
"Our biggest export is is young, talented people," said county resident Rob Campbell, who favors Rosie's. "That is an anchor point we can build off of."
Rosie's has emporiums in Richmond, Hampton, New Kent, Vinton, Henry County and Dumfries and offers historic horse-racing gaming technology. According to the county, the proposed Madison Heights operation would bring 150 gaming machines, new annual tax revenue as estimated as much as $1.9 million and at least 100 jobs. The project also plans a $40 million investment in the Seminole shopping center, the county said in a news release.
Chad Eby, chairman of the Amherst County Economic Development Authority, said the business would attract visitors from surrounding areas to Madison Heights.
"We expect to see an an economic boost when Rosie's visitors patronize other Amherst businesses and the tax revenues generated by Rosie's will help our county continue to grow," Eby said.
He said EDA board members and staff visited Rosie's in Vinton and were impressed with how clean and well run it was. With the announcement of Rosie's interest in Madison Heights, other developers are looking at the area and the EDA firmly believes it will be a catalyst for redevelopment along the U.S. 29 corridor, Eby said.
"If Rosie's didn't locate in Amherst County, it will locate nearby and Amherst will have lost out on a tremendous opportunity," Eby said.
Amherst resident Tobey Thurston said, "Just because it's profitable doesn't mean it's the right thing to do."
Madison Heights resident Robert Adcock held up a Bible while quoting a passage: "The love of money is the root of all evil."
"Rosie's is coming, not to help Madison Heights, but for the money," Adcock said.
Pugh noted the positive and negative effects of the business locating in the county and said he personally hasn't decided yet how he will vote in the referendum. As an elected official, he said he doesn't feel it his place to sway public opinion in stating why he abstained from voting on the resolution.
"The people need to decide, do their own research and decide if they want it in their community," said Pugh. "It's up to you all to figure it out."
Supervisor Jimmy Ayers said he is not a proponent of gambling but feels Rosie's is a legitimate business that will benefit the county. A former sheriff in Amherst, Ayers said he has spoken with law enforcement in communities where Rosie's located and he's been told the company was "the best partner we've ever had."
If the company's presence becomes a public nuisance in Amherst, the board has leeway to shut it down, Ayers said. He added he recently met with a developer and builder looking at bringing a senior living community and he was asked what the county would do to support infrastructure for such a desperately needed project.
"Those same naysayers will be the first ones to holler when we raise 1 cent of the [real estate] property tax. But where do we get it?" Ayers said of revenue streams to invest in infrastructure. "But for this county to go against a legitimate business, to say, 'We don't want you here; you're not welcome here,' I find is pretty embarrassing."
Ayers said Rosie's deserves a chance and publicly thanked Ernie Dellaverson — general manager of the company's Vinton location, who attended the meeting and spoke — for choosing Amherst County as a place to do business.
Dellaverson said the company appreciates the board's support and invites the public to take tours of the Vinton site.
"It's very important for [residents] to know the full economic impact Rosie's can bring to their community," he said in an interview after the meeting.
Addressing concerns raised, he said a greater risk for crime comes from vacant, dilapidated buildings that don't produce any revenue for the local tax base.
Ayers said he would like a YMCA facility in the county with an aquatic center, a price tag county officials have been told is $12 million.
"Where can we look for that in the community? We can't if we don't have a tax base to support it. And we have to start somewhere," he said.
The board discussed holding off the vote on the resolution to have all five members present but noted early voting starts Sept. 17, several days prior to the supervisors' next scheduled meeting.
"It's up to this board to show leadership," Supervisor Claudia Tucker said. "If we say no to this company coming in here, who wants to do business with us, we'll be saying no silently to 10 more. And I don't want to have anybody else say 'how come we don't have this, how come come we don't have that' and 'why are my taxes going up.'"
Supervisor Tom Martin said his support for the resolution is based on the company helping the local tax base and bringing jobs.
"I think in November this county has a big decision to make," Martin said.