Alfred Liggins was barely 20 years old when he made a decision that would influence the direction of black entertainment for decades to come. Having struck out applying for a job with Motown Records, he packed up his car and headed back home to Washington, DC, where his mother, Cathy Hughes, was independently managing a fledgling radio station. Liggins initially worked in the sales department at AM station WOL by day and attended the University of District Columbia by night.
This was the 1980s, an era when black Americans began to see their culture increasingly represented on television, film and radio even when ownership of those airwaves was hard to come by. Liggins’ mother was the exception, having acquired WOL in the early 1980s. “She wanted to provide a platform for blacks to speak and be heard,” Liggins says.
By the mid-1990s, mother and son had made the station profitable and soon began buying FM stations in the DC – Baltimore region. WOL rebranded to Radio One and in 1999 the company went public, making it the first ever female black owned company on the NASDAQ.
Over the last two decades, Liggins has expanded the business, now named Urban One, into a multimedia behemoth that reaches 80% of black Americans.
The next chapter in Urban One’s groundbreaking journey: casinos. The Silver Spring, Maryland-based company gained gaming and entertainment experience as a minority interest stakeholder in MGM National Harbor. When neighboring Virginia announced the development of five casinos as part of a 2020 gaming expansion bill, Urban One wasted no time drafting a proposal to build a resort in the state’s capital, Richmond. Despite lacking casino management, Liggins was confident that the brand he and his mom developed would resonate in Richmond, a city where blacks make up a slight majority of the population.
In early 2020 Urban One submitted a $560m casino project that would include a 12-story luxury hotel, a theater, more than a dozen bars and restaurants and approximately 100,000 square feet of gaming space. Known as ONE Casino Resort, the property would be built in South Richmond at Commerce Road and Walmsley Boulevard. Urban One partnered with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, owner of Colonial Downs racetrack and Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, to head gaming operations. Urban One’s proposal ultimately beat out more experienced operators like Golden Nugget, The Cordish Companies and Bally’s Corp., which Liggins says is a testament to his company’s ability to relate to Richmond’s population.
“For more than 35 years, Urban One has been the leading voice speaking to black America,” Liggins says. “First, as the largest local urban radio network. Then, as the largest syndicator of urban programming. One has been a member of the Richmond community for over 20 years with multiple radio properties in the market, so we know Richmond. We are always looking for ways to elevate the communities where we operate, economically, politically and socially so a project where we can create jobs, build generational wealth, and improve the overall landscape of Richmond is our kind of project.”
In late July, the Richmond City Council officially approved the contract for ONE. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney was among the vocal supporters for the project, which city officials believe will generate 1,300 jobs and $5.7bn in economic activity over the casino’s first 10 years. The casino project now faces a referendum from Richmond voters in November.
“We will appeal to voters citywide in the general election the same way we have been by spreading our positive message that this is an economic development opportunity Richmond wants – investing hundreds of millions in the city, our profit-sharing with employees who will have good-paying jobs, our 55 acres of green space open to all, our partnership with local restaurants and breweries, and our 3,000 person capacity live music venue hosting 200 shows annually with partner Live Nation.”
If approved, Urban One would become the only present-day black-owned majority owner of a casino in the US.
Liggins follows in the footsteps of the late Don Barden, a black entrepreneur who acquired Fitzgeralds Hotel and Casino (now The D Las Vegas Casino Hotel) in 2001. Barden became the first black American to reach the top of an industry that relies on a diverse workforce. A 2017 study by the American Gaming Association found that 45% of casino gaming employees are minority, well above the 33% national average.
“We still have a long way to go, but we’ve also come a long way,” says Liggins. “What we see playing out in the country today is just a reminder that the work that we do each and every day is still important and necessary. But we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, and we’ll continue to do our part until it’s no longer needed.”
One way Urban One is doing its part is by committing to paying workers a minimum of $15 per hour compared to the Virginia minimum wage of $9.50. The average annual compensation package for employees will be $55,000. Urban One said it will set a 40% participation goal for small and minority-owned businesses for construction and operation of the facility. The casino will also fund $30,000 annual payments to Richmond Public Schools over a five-year period.
“The ONE project is a critical part of our efforts to keep moving forward and create new opportunities to build wealth for people of color,” adds Liggins. “The only way we can make real progress is by reducing the economic divide between black and white and creating environments where everyone is at the same table with the same opportunities.”
Liggins expects ONE to rejuvenate the South Richmond community with space for community gardens, miles of fitness and bike trails, dog parks, and a walk-through arboretum.
The project’s main pull will be, of course, gaming. ONE plans to differentiate itself from competing Virginia casinos with a poker room and state-of-the-art sportsbook.
ONE could be one of the first and only properties to offer retail sports betting in Virginia, which currently operates an exclusively online market. First, Urban One must receive licensing from the Virginia Lottery, which won’t occur until 2022. So the wait for licensing has led Urban One to consider delaying its opening date from 2023 to 2024.
“Changes in target dates in the community agreement between the City of Richmond and ONE are to provide some flexibility given the Virginia Lottery will have up to 12 months to issue a license once ONE has submitted its final application,” Liggins explains. “We plan to submit our application no later than December 15, 2021, assuming the referendum passes on November 2. This is a big project and there will be many moving parts along the way.”
Richmond would like to see ONE open early, so much so that the city is incentivizing Urban One with a reduced annual gambling-related revenue payout for one year if it opens no later than the end of 2023.
Liggins, too, would like to see the project finish as soon as possible.
“The City of Richmond is facing one of its greatest opportunities,” says Liggins. “It is a moment in the city’s evolution to create something incredible and exciting that will put Richmond on the regional and national map and be an economic engine for the city – lifting up many in the process.”