FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) – Legislation that would allow a referendum on a casino in the northern Virginia suburbs of the nation´s capital cleared a hurdle Wednesday when a state Senate committee voted to advance the bill.

The bill would allow Fairfax County to hold a referendum on placing a casino, as well as a convention center and concert hall, in Tysons Corner, in the heart of some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs.

The favorable vote came even as civic groups and homeowner associations in the neighborhoods around the proposed casino are expressing opposition. Several senators noted that they have received hundreds of emails and letters opposing the plan.

Supporters, though, say the legislation merely allows the residents of the county to decide for themselves whether to allow a casino. They also note that the county’s board of supervisors would have to sign off on a referendum as well.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for another round of review. It would then need to pass the full Senate, and then the House of Delegates, and finally get the signature of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, said a casino would help diversify the tax base of a county that has traditionally been the state’s economic engine and cash cow. But he said the post-pandemic economy has hit the county particularly hard, and that office space once filled with federal government contractors who desired physical proximity to the nation’s capital is empty now that many are working remotely.

«This is the canary in the coal mine that our economy is changing in northern Virginia, and we need this help,» Marsden said Tuesday at a subcommittee hearing.

The vote Wednesday in the Senate’s General Laws and Technology Committee was 10 in favor, with four opposed and one abstention.

Virginia voted in 2020 to allow locations in five cities, subject to referendum. Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk all voted for a casino; Richmond voters twice rejected a proposed casino in that city.

Another bill that passed the committee Wednesday would allow Petersburg to hold a referendum on a casino in place of Richmond.

Marsden said allowing a casino in northern Virginia provides geographic diversity and fairness. Legislative studies have also shown that a northern Virginia casino would generate more tax revenue than anywhere else.

He also said a northern Virginia location will draw gamblers from the wealthy Maryland suburbs like Potomac and Bethesda, allowing Virginia to recoup some of the money that now flows out of state when northern Virginia residents drive across the Potomac River to MGM’s massive casino in Maryland’s National Harbor.

Opponents have expressed concerns about traffic and crime. The Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce supports the bill.

Also on Wednesday, the committee voted in support of legislation that would allow online sportsbooks to take wagers on games involving colleges located within the state.

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