North Carolina Republican lawmakers gave up on their efforts to legalize more casinos in the state this week. Sen. Phil Berger was one of the leading advocates for this, which would have brought a casino to his home county of Rockingham. But months before this plan was public knowledge, county officials began quietly setting the stage for casino development.
WFDD’s Amy Diaz spoke with reporter Travis Fain of WRAL about his in-depth look at what happened. He starts by talking about Cordish, a Maryland-based casino developer, that tried to rezone a plot of land next to a summer camp for children with disabilities.
On the decisions made by Rockingham County officials:
"Rockingham County in July, there's a Planning and Zoning Board, rejected a rezoning that the company asked for through one of its holding companies. But then in August, the county commission reversed that. But I want to back up to June. Before really anyone in the Rockingham County community knew what was happening, Rockingham County commissioners voted to change what's called the UDO, basically a planning document that says what the rules are, particularly with zoning. And they added a small amendment that basically said, anything licensed by the state, even if it's electronic gaming, can be done in a ‘highway commercial zoning.’ And then in July and August, they voted to change this land where Cordish wanted to build a casino to ‘highway commercial zoning.’ So then the question was pretty obvious. If it wasn't public knowledge that a casino was coming to this land, how did y'all know that you needed to change that ordinance in June?"
On how county officials explained the ordinance change:
"They didn't explain it well. At first, I had trouble getting answers. None of the county commissioners would talk to me except for one who said, ‘I'm not talking to you.’ So I guess that counts. They ultimately put me to the county attorney, a guy named Clyde Albright. Because in addition to the casino bill, lawmakers did pass a bill this year to legalize mobile sports betting. So the Rockingham County Attorney Clyde Albright says, ‘Well, I looked at that bill before it passed as it was moving through committee in March. And I saw that it mentioned electronic gaming, and I wanted to make sure we changed our UDO, that we were ready in case that was going to come to Rockingham County.’ Well, that doesn't sound right. And I reached back out to him and said, 'Hey, that doesn't make sense. I am not aware of any way, this bill that you're pointing to is the reason for changing this zoning rule.’ Two weeks go by about, and he changes his story. And he says, ‘I've been following media coverage of this and that's why I knew that we had to change that UDO.’ So his answer shifted, after two weeks of silence."
On what he and Rockingham County residents make of those answers:
"Again, Rockingham County is home to the Senate's top Republican Phil Berger, who's the one pushing this. He's been talking about it, you know, behind closed doors for months. His son is a county commissioner. So his son is one of the people who voted for this rezoning. It's not hard to come up with, let's call it an ‘imagined scenario’ and be kind, where some conversations are being had with local officials before anyone in the public knows that, hey, you know, maybe this company is going to build this massive economic development project that by the way, includes a casino. Let's make some moves before the inevitable backlash from the public sets in."
On how Rockingham County residents feel about casinos and the way their elected officials handled this:
"They're widely upset about how it was handled. You know that the sheriff, a guy named Sam Page, who is also running for lieutenant governor, so this is an issue that he's kind of harping on but I mean, he has cried out about it, a lot of people are upset about it. Both the plan to build a casino and also the way it was gone about. I'm sure there are some people in Rockingham County who absolutely want this casino to happen. It would create jobs, it would make money for people who are involved with it. But I mean, I think a lot of people feel like a trust has been broken here, or that it never existed. I heard a lot of resignation from people in Rockingham County that this was the good ol’ boy network once again."
On what's next for Rockingham County on this issue:
"I think next year when the legislature goes back into session, this will be tried again. Because I mean, one of the real issues here was not only did they try to leverage this in with the budget, so kind of make people accept it because it's in a $30 billion budget, they tried to tie it to Medicaid expansion. And so the question in my mind is not will this come back up? But how will this come back up? I actually think there's fairly good support for a casino plan. But you lose support when you try to hide the ball, and then you try to leverage another issue to get your gambling bill through."
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.