Rosie’s Gaming Emporium wants to try its luck in Manassas Park, but already the city’s top leaders say they are against its plan to open a gambling outlet in the Manassas Park Shopping Center on Centreville Road.
Churchill Downs Incorporated, Rosie’s Gaming Emporium’s parent company, announced on Friday, June 23 an effort to collect the 450 signatures necessary to get a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot seeking Manassas Park voters’ approval to open a new Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in Manassas Park.
In the days since, Manassas Park Mayor Jeanette Rishell (D), Vice Mayor Alanna Mensing (D) and City Manager Laszlo Palko have all voiced opposition to the plan.
Rishell opposes bringing any form of gambling into Manassas Park. “This is not in my vision for the city. I am very concerned,” Rishell said. “I believe this would change the character of our city.”
“We are a family-oriented and a safe little city that by nature is welcoming to all families and residents, and I fear that positive character will change,” Rishell told the Prince William Times. “Also, I do not consider bringing in gambling to be a good example for our children.”
Mensing said that in general she doesn’t support bringing gambling to Manassas Park but said she was open to an initial plan, quietly hatched by Palko back in 2019, to bring a larger Rosie’s entertainment complex to Manassas Park’s new downtown area dubbed, Park Central.
“Discussions with Rosie’s began several years ago,” Mensing said. “The original idea included a restaurant and entertainment center in addition to the gaming machines.”
“They provided us with a design and invested nearly $500,000 in designing the build out,” Palko said. The plan was “to redevelop a larger site in the downtown (area) to ensure downtown success and to generate between $7 to $9 million in annual tax revenues from a hotel, Rosie’s and entertainment venue,” Palko said.
“This was something that would drastically help our economy, and even though it does not match the vision I hold for our city, I was willing to see how it was viewed by the public in a series of town halls, and ultimately, a referendum,” Mensing said.
But Rosie’s changed course sometime in the last several months, Palko said, after Churchill Downs, the owner of the Kentucky Derby, bought Rosie’s Gaming Emporium from the Virginia-based Colonial Downs.
Churchill Downs scrapped plans for a new Rosie’s entertainment complex in the city’s downtown area and, instead, sought an existing building for a stand-alone gaming facility without the hotel and entertainment space. It found such a spot in the Manassas Park Shopping Center strip mall on Centreville Road. Rosie’s has signed an option to lease the space now occupied by “The Furniture House” if Manassas Park voters approve the ballot referendum on Nov. 7.
“Unfortunately, Churchill Downs signed a lease with the Manassas Shopping Center without our knowledge or blessing,” Mensing said. “This new version will only include the gaming machines, (and) no additional entertainment.”
“It came out of nowhere and was very shocking and disappointing that they would proceed without coordinating with the jurisdiction they are looking to work with,” Palko said. Their new plan “will result in them displacing a Manassas Park business instead of filling vacant space in the downtown.”
“Even more disappointing, they have no plans to spruce up or make improvements to the aged shopping plaza,” Mensing said. “The lack of communication and trust between Churchill and the city is alarming to me, and I’m not sure I can support this venture.”
The scope of the project changed after Churchill Downs purchased Rosie’s from Colonial Downs in November 2022, according to Mark Hubbard, a Churchill Downs spokesman. Churchill Downs was not interested in another large gaming facility in Manassas Park given that it’s already building “The Rose,” a casino-sized gaming facility and hotel, on Interstate 95 in Dumfries. That facility is slated to open in the first quarter of 2024, Hubbard said.
Churchill Downs found the Manassas Park Shopping Center to be “well-suited” for a Rosie’s gambling outlet because it’s centrally located, accessible to tourists and provides ample parking, Hubbard said.
Hubbard said it was his understanding that The Furniture Outlet already had plans to close when Churchill Downs optioned the lease for the space.
“There have been ongoing and extensive conversations with the city,” Hubbard said, noting that other Manassas Park city council members support the project. City Council members Michael Carrera (I) and Laura Hampton (D) confirmed to the Prince William Times that they support Rosie’s Gaming Emporium coming to Manassas Park.
City Council members Yesenia Amaya (D) and Darryl Moore (D) did not return an email requesting comment.
The Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in Manassas Park is expected to generate about $1.5 million in annual tax revenue for the city and create about 150 new jobs. Those benefits were enough to win Carrera’s support, he said Monday.
“The major benefit will be increased tax revenues that will assist with additional city services, school funding and property tax reduction,” Carrera said, noting that Manassas Park residents face the highest real estate tax rate in Virginia.
Earlier this month the council adopted a new budget for fiscal year 2024 that cut the tax rate 2 cents from $1.45 to $1.43. Still, residential real estate tax bills are expected to rise about $256 next year, Palko said.
“The city has shared with us that they are really excited about revitalizing downtown. Certainly the significant tax revenues that they’re going to generate through the Rosie’s will help fund that revitalization,” Hubbard said.
“We will put a very nice façade on the location, and we will enhance security,” Hubbard said. The security improvements will include additional lighting and security personnel. About 25% of the new jobs created will be dedicated to security, Hubbard said.
If the referendum passes, Churchill Downs is planning a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium with slot-like gaming machines, a café and bar that will serve burgers, fries and pizza, Hubbard said.
Getting a referendum on the ballot in smaller localities such as Manassas Park requires only a fraction of the signatures that would be required in larger counties. In Prince William County, which has 287,500 registered voters, about 14,400 signatures would be needed to meet the 5% of registered voters required by law.
But Manassas Park had 8,128 registered voters as of June 1, according to the Virginia Department of Elections, meaning the petition needs only 450 signatures.
Churchill Downs “probably chose Manassas Park because our population is smaller than a county, and it would cost them less to propagandize residents prior to the referendum,” Rishell said.
Hubbard said Churchill Downs is already assembling a team of paid canvassers who will go out into the community to collect signatures, hopefully completing the process by early August.
Rishell said she was told by Churchill Downs that Rosie’s Manassas Park facility is planned to have between 250 and 350 slot-like machines, which could more than double the 160 machines allowed at the Dumfries Rosie’s Emporium.
“If they do well, they have the potential to expand even more,” Rishell said, into other businesses in the shopping center. “Possibly 500 to 750 machines total if they think it can be sustained and successful,” Rishell said.
“Even 250 to 350 is a large predatory operation, and not at all like the machines that are located in 7-Elevens and other stores, and certainly not the same as church bingo,” Rishell said.
If the Prince William County Circuit Court verifies the voter signatures and OKs the referendum, most Manassas Park voters would need to vote yes for the facility to move forward.
“Manassas Park registered voters will make the final decision about whether or not to allow Rosie’s to operate in our city: a real-life example of democracy in action,” Hampton said.
Palko said he still hopes Churchill Downs will reconsider opening in Manassas Park’s downtown area. “I hope they pivot back to the downtown, but it seems like we are stuck for the moment.”