Caesar's Palace it's not, but for the first time Northern Virginia is getting in on the expansion of gambling that has been spreading throughout the state.
Early next month, Rosie's Gaming is opening its fourth slots parlor of sorts in the state, with a 150-machine facility in Dumfries, in southern Prince William County.
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For all practical purposes, the machines play like slot machines, and casual gamblers would be hard-pressed to notice the difference between Rosie's machines and any other slot machine. Technically, though, the outcome of the wager is tied to the results of old horse races, and the machines provide an option — rarely used — to make the wager based on information about the horses' post-time odds and other factors.
The state legislature approved the machines in 2018 as a baby step toward expanded gambling in a state that traditionally has rejected it. The Rosie's outlets are run by the same company that operates the state's only racetrack — Colonial Downs in New Kent County — and a small portion of the proceeds from the machines is dedicated to increased purses at Colonial Downs to boost the state's horse industry.
The machines have been a success in the locations where they're already in place — Richmond, Vinton, Hampton and Colonial Downs. In November alone, $170 million was wagered at the machines, and $155 million was paid out in winnings. Now, though, Rosie's is ready to see whether it can get a piece of the wealthy Northern Virginia market.
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Competition will be tough — Northern Virginians can currently go across the Potomac River to MGM National Harbor in Maryland, one of the biggest casinos on the East Coast, or to West Virginia for the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town racetrack. For the vast majority of Northern Virginians, one of those two casinos is closer than Dumfries, and also offer table games and a much larger variety of gambling options.
Rick Casagrande, general manager of Rosie's Dumfries location, said he's confident Dumfries will be an attractive option to enough people to be a success.
“In every jurisdiction, the people that come out are looking for an entertainment option that's clean, safe and friendly. And we provide that,” he said.
Rosie's is starting small in Dumfries — the new location will have 150 machines. Even fewer machines will be in operation when the planned opening occurs in early January to facilitate distancing necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dumfries Mayor Derrick Wood and other town officials toured the facility recently as machines arrived for installation and workers applied a final coat of paint to the exterior. Wood said he's been impressed with the investment Rosie's is making. More than 100 people are being hired with minimum wages of $15 an hour, and he said the company has committed to supporting community groups like Boys & Girls Clubs.
Dumfries voted 468-306 in 2019 in favor of gambling. Wood said he suspects those who were opposed to the gaming remain so.
“Everybody ain't gonna like you, everybody ain't gonna like me, and everybody ain't gonna like every business that comes to town,” he said.
But he thinks opponents, over time, may be won over as they see the improvements at the shopping center where Rosie’s is located and the company establishes itself in the community. The Rosie's site represents the biggest job producer to come to the town in years, he said, and even by the most conservative estimates will increase town revenue by 20% at the outset.
“Dumfries has always been a place people drive through,” he said. “Now we are trying to create a sense of destination.”
Even more competition is coming for gamblers' cash — next month the Virginia Lottery will likely grant approval to a dozen or more commercial operators to launch online sports betting. Farther down the road, voters in four Virginia cities last month approved casinos that are expected to open in the next few years.
Whether Northern Virginia would ever consider a full-scale expansion of casino gambling is unclear. A legislative study last year concluded that if Virginia wanted to generate significant tax revenue from its casinos, its best bet is to put a casino in Northern Virginia, where anticipated revenue would be $155 million, triple the estimate for any of the cities that approved casinos last month.
Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell, who represents Dumfries and supported the town's effort to bring in Rosie's, said that while he personally isn't a gambler, he hates seeing the state losing out on revenue.
“From where I live, I can walk a few blocks and look out over the Potomac and see $150 million in Virginia money going across the bridge” to the MGM casino in Maryland, Surovell said. “I've always said I'd be supportive of keeping Virginia's money here in a responsible way.”
So far, though, he said there seems to little appetite among local government in Northern Virginia for a casino.