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Local leaders deny any connection between state infrastructure grants and proposed casinos

A municipal drinking water plant. Unlike at a private well, water is treated at a central location, then pumped through pipes to residents.
Wikimedia Commons
A municipal drinking water plant. Unlike at a private well, water is treated at a central location, then pumped through pipes to residents.

North Carolina is set to give grants for major upgrades to water and sewage infrastructure to four communities that happen to be near sites where new casinos could be built. But leaders in most of those communities are denying there’s any connection between the infrastructure projects and the possible casinos.

Mehr Sher wrote about it for Carolina Public Press and she joins me now.

Marshall Terry: First let’s back up a second. Remind me if you will what the deal is with casinos in North Carolina right now. Four casinos were proposed as part of last year’s budget, but they were eventually dropped, right?

Mehr Sher: Yeah, Marshall, so going back to last year in July, lawmakers were considering a draft casino bill that would enable a business to develop casinos in the state and legalize casinos in the state. And so, at Carolina Public Press, we dug into the campaign contributions from the Baltimore-based casino development firm The Cordish Companies, and that raised suspicions about whether or not this company would be the one to develop the four proposed casinos. The casinos were proposed for Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, with a fourth one planned in eastern North Carolina to be run by the Lumbee tribe. This bill led to a divide among the Republican lawmakers and that resulted in a much-delayed state budget and the proposal was eventually dropped to go ahead with the budget.

Terry: Alright, so back to these four communities getting the state infrastructure grants. Leaders in three of the communities, in Union, Rockingham and Nash counties, are denying any connection between the grants and possible casinos. So, what are they saying?

Sher: Yeah, you're correct. So, the Rockingham County manager said that these upgrades have been in the works for years and shared documents with me, of plans that date back to 2006. The county manager said that they are increasing their infrastructure to support growth in the county. The Nash County manager also said that the upgrades weren't tied to the casino. However, she also said that she did not have the public records to share with me to verify this. In Marshville, which is in Union County and is close to the Anson County line, the proposed area for the casino, I spoke with the manager there as well, and he also had the same response. What makes Marshville different is that it is considered a water and sewer desert, and their growth has been stagnated for 30 to 40 years, so they needed the grant for a regional water and sewage project. So yes, all three of them denied any link to the proposed casino sites.

Terry: But you write leaders in the fourth community, which is in Anson County, acknowledge that the water and sewer upgrades could help support a casino being proposed for that area. What are they saying?

Sher: Yeah, the Anson County manager was the only one who I spoke with who acknowledged that these significant upgrades would help support such a large project as the entertainment district or casino proposed in the legislature last year. He said that Anson County could, with these upgrades, be in a position to serve The Cordish Companies folks, if they developed a casino there.

Terry: Just how much money are we talking here with these grants?

Sher: Well, I don't want people to think these grants are unusual. Just to be clear, the counties which I was digging into, where the casino sites were proposed, are not the only ones that are slated to receive grants for major water and sewage upgrades. Many communities and counties statewide will be receiving these funds, and it amounts to more than a billion dollars, allocated to grants across the state for water and sewer infrastructure. But the communities that we're talking about here, which are linked to the proposed casino sites, are important to keep an eye on. So Anson County, for instance, over the course of two years, the 2023 state budget and the 2022 state budget was allocated $11 million. Then in Marshville in Union County was allocated $8 million over the course of two years. What's most significant to me is that more than $72.3 million were allocated to Rockingham County over the course of two years in both state budgets – and that is just for the county at large. And then we go over to Mayodan and Madison, which are these two adjacent towns in Rockingham County, a total of $9.5 million were also allocated for these towns for water and sewage grants over the course of two years.

Terry: And speaking of money you also found that these four communities we’ve been talking about are represented by state lawmakers who have received campaign funding from executives at a company that develops casinos, right?

Sher: Yeah, in July last year at Carolina Public Press, as I said, we investigated the campaign contributions to at least eight North Carolina lawmakers, and we found that the lawmakers of all the four counties that I've mentioned, Union, Nash, Rockingham and Anson counties, received campaign funding from executives of The Cordish Companies. Now the funding is not illegal and is well within the donation limits for campaign contributions, but when we were reporting on that story, it did raise questions about a pay-to-play scenario. The total amount for these contributions that we found at the time when we were digging into this was $34,400 from four donors linked to the company. The lawmakers who received these contributions included the Senate leader Phil Berger, who represents Rockingham County, and also Senator Lisa Barnes, Representative John Bell, Representative Jason Saine. Senator David Craven, Representative Kyle Hall, Representative Larry Strickland, Senator Todd Johnson and also U.S. Representative Kathy Manning.

Terry: So, to be clear these casino projects were scrapped last year, but lawmakers could take them up again when they reconvene this spring. What are the chances of them getting approved this time?

Sher: So based on my conversations with the spokesperson for representative Tim Moore, it's not clear yet whether or not casino legalization will be back on the agenda. At least at the moment, according to her, it has not been discussed yet, but we do know that it is possible that this issue does reemerge once the legislative session begins in late April. So, it's just a matter of keeping our eyes on the issue and just waiting and watching and seeing what happens when the session begins.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.