An artist's rendering of the casino coming to Danville, with "The Three Sisters," as the old smokestacks of Dan River Mills are known, in the background. Courtesy City of Danville.

When the Caesars Virginia Casino & Resort, Danville arrives, it will be one of the largest employers in the region. It is also expected to bring an increased demand for housing, airport traffic, and tourism to the city. 

The groundbreaking for the $650-million project will be today at 9:30 a.m. at the casino’s anticipated location in the Schoolfield district beneath the “Three Sisters” smokestacks. 

The casino’s opening is exciting for Danville, a city that had a downtown like “a ghost town” just 10 years ago, according to City Council Member Lee Vogler. 

While increased economic development has brought Danville back to life, the casino is expected to add some major momentum. 

“That might be the most exciting thing about the casino,” Vogler said. “ Our 30-year plan for Danville, which we are about 10 years into, can become a 20-year plan because of the extra money that we’ll have to do the things we want to do.”

For this reason, many residents of the city are ready for the casino to open –  but is the city itself ready to support this growth?

What needs to be in place before the 2024 opening date? Let’s take a look. 

Previous coverage:

How will big will Danville’s casino be? This big.

Hopes, and some fears, as Virginia’s first casino opens in Bristol.

The Historic North Theatre welcomes the casino to Danville with an enthusiastic marquee. Owner Wayne Alan said he thinks Caesars will be “a positive thing for the town,” and hopefully drive up business. “Not just for me, but hopefully all businesses in Danville are going to prosper,” he said. “As a city, we have to plan properly and offer the right services, but I think certainly we have a great opportunity.” Photo by Grace Mamon.

Housing

Like other rural communities, Danville has seen its fair share of population decline. But for the first time in a while, that decline has slowed and perhaps stopped, said City Manager Ken Larking. 

The 2020 census showed a -1.1% population loss in Danville, the smallest decline in the last 30 years. And the 2021 Census Bureau estimate reports that for the first time in many years, Danville saw some small population growth. 

“At some point, all the effort to rejuvenate and revitalize our community has resulted in more people moving into our communities,” Larking said. “I feel like we’re on the upward trajectory of possibly having population growth.”

This possibility is strengthened by the jobs that the casino will bring (not to mention the Southern Virginia Mega Site, which will bring a considerable number of jobs when it is developed). 

But any employees moving to the area will need housing. 

“In the short term, we can support them,” said Vogler. “But in the long term, we have a substantial housing need.”

Vogler said this is a good problem to have – it means the city is growing. But limited housing still needs to be addressed. 

“We could’ve given away houses 10 years ago,” he said. 

Now, the number of homes for sale in Danville is way below normal, said James Buckner, who is a realtor with Wilkins & Co., one of the primary realty companies in the Dan River Region. 

As of last week, there were 67 homes on the market in the city, Buckner said – far less than the usual 200 or more. This is likely a direct result of the casino announcement, he said. 

“More agents in our area have had a record breaking year, I hate to say since the casino was announced, but yeah, since the casino was announced,” Buckner said. “The prices on Schoolfield houses have gone up three times what they were two years ago.”

This has led to a “huge need right now for new construction,” he said, whether that’s condominiums for sale, apartments for rent, or single-family homes for sale or rent. 

There have been neighborhood expansions, but it’s been a long time since a new housing development was built within city limits, Buckner said.

“A total new neighborhood, I dare say probably hasn’t been built since the 60s,” he said. 

Renovations, however, are abounding in Danville. Downtown, in the River District, old tobacco warehouses have been renovated into swanky loft apartments, and the Old West End neighborhood has turned from rows of derelict houses to historic, renovated homes. 

The Old West End only has two homes available for sale immediately, said Paul Liepe, executive director of Friends of the Old West End. 

Buckner, who also serves on the city council, said that creating housing in the downtown area has largely been taken care of. 

“Our task as a city council, and as a city itself, was to promote downtown, to get attention down there and draw folks in,” he said. “Mission complete. There’s over 3,000 people living down there with more coming every week.”

Now, the focus needs to shift to areas outside of the River District, he said. This is something the city is aware of and working on. 

“We’re being proactive about it,” Larking said, mentioning an upcoming regional housing summit, put on by Danville’s Office of Economic Development. 

The August 18 event at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research is targeting financial institutions, architects, local community representatives, and others in the construction industry, according to a July 26 release. 

“The goal of the summit is to spur new residential housing construction,” the release said. 

Larking said the summit will bring together “all the right people” to talk about what the region has to offer and how they can benefit from the anticipated growth. 

“Quality of life is really where it’s at when it comes to being a successful community,” Larking said. “Now more than ever, people are able to choose where they live first, and then find a job after. If we’re not a place that people are wanting to choose to live in, then we’re going to be behind.”

Buckner said he believes that housing will be in place in time to accommodate casino traffic and employees. If you’re in Danville and you’re not excited right now, you should be, he said. 

“This is just an amazing renaissance that we’re going through,” he said. “We’re well on our way to a lot of great things.”

Airport

The Danville Regional Airport is also preparing for the casino’s opening with six projects to upgrade different aspects of the airport. 

One concern is aircraft parking. 

The airport, a general aviation airport that does not offer scheduled service, frequently sees parking space fill up when the nearby Virginia International Raceway has an event, said Danville Director of Transportation Marc Adelman. 

“Imagine, you have a VIR race where you’ve got this ramp fully maxed out, and now you’ve got casino traffic,” he said. “So, where do you park your aircraft?”

Last summer, the airport used its shorter runway on an incidental basis to park aircraft when regular parking space was full. This runway has already undergone rehabilitation and is scheduled to reopen this month. 

Using the shorter runway for parking is an option for the future as well. 

But, “we’ve already had to use this runway for VIR parking without the casino,” and the airport has no idea just how much of an increase in volume to expect, Adelman said. 

So, one of the airport’s projects is the rehabilitation of its south ramp to support potential surplus parking for casino and raceway traffic. The south ramp, a 20-year-old concrete pad, is riddled with cracks and surrounded by buckling asphalt. 

“When you drive down the taxiway connection to the south ramp, you’ll see and feel a very large speed bump,” Adelman said. “That’s not supposed to be a speed bump. That’s just the pavement acting in a deficient manner. You can physically see it.” 

The 13-inch-deep concrete needs to be rubblized, or crushed into tiny bits of rock, and then paved over – a process that is expected to cost $5 million, Adelman said. 

Bids opened for this project last month. The state approved funding for the project, however the Federal Aviation Administration is still deciding whether to approve funds. If approved, this project will start in October.

The airport will also almost double its fuel supply to accommodate jet aircraft operations related to the casino and VIR traffic. 

Right now, the airport has two 12,000-gallon fuel tanks. It is planning to add a 20,000-gallon tank by the end of this year, well before the casino opens. 

“In one weekend, currently, they can sell 23,000 gallons of fuel,” Adelman said. 

This means that the jet fuel tank needs to be replenished over the weekend, a process that must be coordinated with the fuel supply. Adding a 20,000-gallon tank will lower the frequency of refills. 

The terminal building is also being renovated, a process that is about 40% complete. The terminal renovation project is anticipated to be complete in spring 2023, Adelman said. 

But some of the other projects are already complete and others are well underway, so the airport will be ready in time to accommodate casino traffic, he said.  

Tourism

People in other parts of the state don’t talk about Danville, because they don’t know about Danville, said the city’s director of tourism, Lisa Meriwether. 

“They don’t see ads, so they just don’t know,” she said. “All they know is textile pulled out, and that’s it.”

When Meriwether took this position in November, her goal “right out of the gate” was to build a brand for Danville and Pittsylvania County. This is something that is sorely needed in the area, she said. 

“What’s our brand? What’s our web presence?” Meriwether said. “We don’t even have a visitor guide.”

Advertising attractions and having a brand is crucial for a locality in normal circumstances – but it’s all the more important for Danville and Pittsylvania County with so much economic development coming to the region. 

Vogler said that Danville had been “missing the boat on tourism for a long time,” and if people come to visit the casino, they should be able to find out about other attractions that the city and county have to offer. 

“We’re going to finally shine a light on things that we’ve had here that folks don’t know about,” Vogler said. “If the casino is the thing that gets some people here, and while they’re here, they check out other stuff, then that’s great.”

Meriwether mentioned the Virginia International Raceway, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, the Danville Science Center, and the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex. These should all have more visibility for tourists, she said. 

And Caesars’ restaurants, spa, convention center, and 500 hotel rooms will be an entertainment venue, Meriwether said, even though, “okay, there’s a gaming component, too.”

In preparation for the casino’s coming – and to fill an existing gap – the tourism department is working with a consulting firm to survey residents, create focus groups and meet with community leaders to create a marketing package and brand for the area. 

They are even doing geofencing, creating a virtual boundary for a real-world geographic area, to collect data on the number of visitors going to certain attractions.

By the fall, this data should be ready to be shared with the community, Meriwether said. And the department will reveal the region’s new brand during National Tourism Week, the first week of May 2023. 

The brand will be something “aspirational,” Meriwether said. Something that stands the test of time like “Virginia is for Lovers.” It won’t tell us about what Danville is today, but what it is becoming. 

In the meantime, there is a lot of work to do, but Meriwether is confident, saying simply, “oh, we’re going to do it.”

“We have company coming, and we need to get ready,” she said. 

Grace Mamon

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org.