Casino firm looks to rezone Rockingham County site as lawmakers weigh gambling laws

Lawmakers are weighing whether to legalize new casinos in the state. Meanwhile, a national developer wants to rezone 192 acres in the home county of one of the legislature's most powerful members.
Posted 2023-07-17T18:19:52+00:00 - Updated 2023-07-17T22:15:15+00:00
Holding company weighs possible placement of new casino in Rockingham County

A holding company connected to a casino developer is seeking to rezone nearly 200 acres in Rockingham County, home to one of the state’s most powerful legislators, as lawmakers quietly weigh whether to authorize multiple new casinos across the state.

NC Development Holdings, whose registered address is the same as Baltimore-based gaming developer The Cordish Cos., asked last month to change the permitted use of 192 acres on U.S. 220 from residential/agricultural to a designation that would allow for a broad array of commercial uses.

Representatives for NC Development haven’t said what they’re planning for the land, and they don’t have to as part of the rezoning process.

Paperwork filed with the state lists the head of Cordish’s casino division as the contact for NC Development Holdings, a limited liability company that registered with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office last month.

2023 lobbyist filing for NC Development Holdings, LLC
2023 lobbyist filing for NC Development Holdings, LLC

Adjacent landowners — including an outdoor camp for children with special needs — fear a casino is coming.

“I think it’s supposed to hush-hush what they’re putting in there,” B.J. Rierson, who lives across U.S. 220 from the property, told the Rockingham County Planning Board last week as it considered the zoning request. “We don’t want it.”

NC Development Holdings registered four lobbyists this year at the General Assembly, where top leaders are talking about legalizing multiple new casinos. Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said last week there’s better than a 50-50 chance new gambling legislation passes the legislature. He has expressed concerns that North Carolinians are crossing the Rockingham County border with Virginia to visit a new casino in nearby Danville and said North Carolina should explore its own options.

Notable lobbyists

Cordish says it has 10 main lines of business, including a casino division led by Cordish senior partner Joseph Weinberg.

Weinberg is listed as NC Development’s president on the company’s lobbyist filings. Weinberg and other representatives of Cordish didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

L.T. McCrimmon, a lobbyist for NC Development, declined to discuss Cordish’s plans in detail.

“They’re a group that’s interested in doing some business here in North Carolina,” she said. “They’re an upstanding group.”

McCrimmon, who previously worked for Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, is part of a high-powered cadre lobbying the General Assembly for either Cordish or NC Development Holdings. The company also registered Tom Fetzer, who is a former Raleigh mayor and former chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, his sister Susan Fetzer Vick and Zachary Dean Almond.

Cordish itself registered Almond, along with four other lobbyists including Tony Copeland, who is Cooper’s former secretary of commerce, and Tracy Kimbrell, who was Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger’s general counsel at the statehouse a decade ago.

There are three casinos in North Carolina now — two on Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians land in western North Carolina and another on Catawba tribal land off Interstate 85 near the South Carolina border. A recent analysis predicted $1.6 billion in new revenue if the legislature authorized three more casinos, and it pegged Rockingham County as a potential location.

The analysis was commissioned by Greater Carolina, a nonprofit political education organization that bills itself as a coalition of “forward thinking, pro-free market conservative leaders.” It was released in late March.

Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, have repeatedly acknowledged that casino options are part of high-level legislative talks. The issue ultimately could be decided as part of the state budget. Casino discussions could be one of the things slowing budget negotiations.

Even high-ranking members of the General Assembly’s Republican majority say they’re in the dark about the details, and lobbyists tracking the casino issue for other gambling clients say only a few people seem to be privy to the conversations.

If details have been written down, they aren’t public. A House Republican told WRAL News last week that the issue hasn’t been discussed in the majority caucus' routine closed-door sessions, which are used to gauge support before moving forward on proposals.

Asked to share casino language that might be coming together, Moore said he’d “leave that confidential for the moment” and that language has not been agreed to.

Rockingham leaders to decide

A lawyer for NC Development went before the Rockingham County Planning Board last week on the rezoning request but gave few details. Because this is a “straight rezoning” request under North Carolina law, the applicant doesn’t have to say what it hopes to build.

“We are at this point considering, on behalf of my client, NC Development Holdings, any particular use that may be appropriate in the highway commercial district,” attorney Will Quick, who is in the Raleigh office of the Brooks Pierce law firm, told board members.

Quick did not return a message seeking further information Monday.

The planning board recommended denial on a 5-2 vote, despite staff recommending the change. The actual decision falls to the Rockingham County Commission, which is scheduled to hear the matter Aug. 21.

One of Berger’s sons, Kevin Berger, is one of five Rockingham County commissioners. He didn’t return a message seeking comment. Board of Commissioners Chairman Mark Richardson also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

NC Development Holdings Rockingham County rezoning request map
NC Development Holdings Rockingham County rezoning request map

Phil Berger’s office issued a statement Monday through spokeswoman Lauren Horsch.

“Expanding gaming in North Carolina remains a conversation in the General Assembly, but what that expansion looks like has not been determined,” Horsch said. “Sen. Berger is supportive of efforts to expand gaming, but it is still too early in the discussions to comment on any specifics.”

NC Development requested the zoning change, but its request lists four sisters as the property’s owners. Three of them didn’t return phone messages, but Julie J. Sanders said the 192-acre plot is family land the sisters wish to sell.

Sanders said she doesn’t know what would be built there or who’s buying the land because those details have been handled by a real estate firm. The firm’s co-owner didn’t return a WRAL News message seeking comment on Monday.

Neighbors feel certain a casino is planned.

“Phil Berger is pushing to get gambling legalized in North Carolina, and that’s where they want to put the casino and all the amenities that go with it,” Rhonda Rodenbough, Camp Carefree’s managing board member, told WRAL News.

The camp was founded in 1986 by Ann and Gib Jones, who carved it out of their farm as a free summer camp for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Ann Jones's daughters inherited the adjacent land.

Rodenbough is worried about increased traffic, and about a creek that runs through the project land, feeding Camp Carefree’s pond.

“Camp Carefree has always been a traditional summer camp with the canoeing and the horses,” Rodenbough said. “This property is right up against our property line. And if they come in and they level all the trees … that is going to take away from the atmosphere of privacy and being out in the open.”