Progress Continues On Virginia Casinos

Virginia casinos are moving forward. In Norfolk, new details have been released about a $500 million Pamunkey tribal venue (l.). In Bristol, the debate continues about a temporary casino. Richmond is still debating operators.

New casinos are taking shape in Virginia. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe released renderings of its planned $500 million casino resort in Norfolk. In Bristol, lottery officials said a temporary Hard Rock Casino is unlikely. And in Richmond, a neighborhood group protested the proposed location of the Cordish Company’s Live! Casino and Resort and another supported a competitor’s proposal.

The Pamunkey Tribe’s planned casino resort alongside Norfolk’s Harbor Park, expected to be completed in 2023 pending licensing by the Virginia Lottery, will feature a glass-and-metal structure with a rooftop pool offering a view of Norfolk Tides games, attached to an 8-story, 300-room hotel, 2,000-car parking facility and a marina on the Elizabeth River. It also will offer a spa, sports bar and grill, steakhouse, rooftop event space and multi-purpose event center.

Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray said, “I’m confident that this project will exceed the expectations of everyone. We are living up to every promise we made and are determined to make this a project of which Norfolk can be proud.”

Norfolk voters approved the casino resort nearly 2 to 1 in a referendum last November, despite two petition drives seeking to stop it. Voters in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth also approved casinos; Richmond voters will have their opportunity this fall.

In Bristol, Virginia Lottery Executive Director Kevin Hall said it’s unlikely a temporary Hard Rock will be built, after all. Officials at the Hard Rock Bristol Hotel and Casino Resort had frequently mentioned opening a temporary gaming venue while the main casino was under construction at the former Bristol Mall. The enabling legislation allows a temporary location for up to one year after the gaming license is approved, among other requirements. The permanent Bristol casino is expected to open in late 2022.

Hall said, “We’re aware at least one of the casino operators has expressed some eagerness to perhaps stand up some temporary gaming. In fact, they have publicly suggested temporary gaming could occur as soon as December of this year. Let me state for the record, in light of all these steps that are required between now and then, we believe temporary gaming as soon as this December is highly unlikely, largely improbable, next to impossible. I don’t know that I can be any more clear.”

In response Hard Rock officials said, “We look forward to working with the Virginia Lottery to open our temporary casino as soon as possible.”

Hall said there are several steps that must be accomplished before a casino can open. “The casino operator has to be thoroughly vetted and approved for a license. That is a very intensive, up to a one-year process. Suppliers and vendors have to be vetted and licensed. Every employee with access to a gaming area has to be fingerprinted and licensed. Temporary facilities, just like a permanent casino, have to have the same extensive surveillance and financial accounting systems in place before they can open for business. Every slot machine, even in a temporary facility, has to be linked to a central monitoring system, and that will require us to go through an RFP process.”

The Lottery Board approved preliminary casino regulations in February. Hall said the license application process is likely to start within a few weeks. He said, “We’ll begin the in-depth financial and criminal background investigations for applicants, casino operators and key executives. These are very thorough, and each one takes considerable time. The legislation provides for up to a year for us to complete these background reviews, and we’ll need it.”

Hall noted lottery officials have informed casino operators in the four voter-approved Virginia cities about the lottery’s plans and an expected timeline. He said lottery staff members have started working on proposed permanent casino regulations and expect to present those to the board in July. If the draft regulations are approved, they’ll go through two months of public feedback and two executive branch reviews. Final regulations must be completed by September 2022.

Hall stated, “As the regulator, we’re building this airplane even while we’re flying it. We have a statutory and a regulatory duty to make sure that casino gaming—whether it’s in a temporary facility or a permanent facility—is done the correct way with appropriate oversight, licensing, security and audit features. As the regulator, we are not going to be taking any shortcuts.”

In Richmond, the Richmond Highway Neighborhood Civic Association endorsed Urban One’s proposal for a casino in an industrial area. The association’s President Charles Willis urged neighbors and Richmond residents to contact city leaders to support the Urban One plan.

He said, “We have seen firsthand how Urban One’s project will make this part of Richmond stronger with good jobs and the kind of economic development we have been waiting for a long time. This is how we grow our part of the city and bring tourism and new business opportunities to South Richmond.”

Media company Urban One is partnering with Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, owner of Colonial Downs racetrack and Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, to develop a casino resort on land currently owned by Philip Morris USA.

In another part of town, about 50 members of neighborhood groups in the Fan District and North Side staged a protest against Maryland-based Cordish Companies’ proposed 1.9 million-square-foot casino resort at the 17-acre Movieland property. They waved colorful “No Casino” signs and rattled cowbells and other noisemakers as rush hour traffic passed.

However, the Scott’s Addition Boulevard Association board of directors recently voted 10-9 not to enter the fight against the project.

The group’s president, Trevor Dickerson, said it still has many concerns about the project, such as traffic congestion and the competition with local businesses. However, he said, association leaders felt it would be more beneficial to work with Cordish in case the city selects them to develop the casino.

“We want to make sure we’ve got a seat at the table,” Dickerson said.

He noted Cordish has agreed to the group’s requests to develop a multi-use trail and to make an annual payment of $100,000 to help pay for streetlights, trees and other improvements in the Scott’s Addition area.

Still, nearby residents are concerned about the casino’s potential impact on the quality of life in the area. Jonathan Marcus, chairman of RVA Coalition of Civic Associations, said 11 neighborhood groups, including the Fan District Association, Fan Area Business Association, Ginter Park Resident Association and Sherwood Park Civic Association, have issued statements against the Cordish project.

“Casinos historically do not serve the public interest. We’re concerned it’ll be a drain on the area. The opposition to this proposal has been that broad and that deep. The traffic alone, there’s a lot of talk about development on Arthur Ashe boulevard between here and I-95. That alone is going to overwhelm the street, but a casino, which is designed to bring in thousands of people on weekends, doesn’t fit with the traffic program,” Marcus said.

He added Scott’s Addition business leaders are “naive” if they think the developer’s benefits and commitments will outweigh the negative impact a casino would have on the community.

Earlier, Stratford Hills residents held similar demonstrations for several weeks against the proposed Bally’s casino resort. That proposal was rejected by city officials who said community members’ concerns did indeed have an effect.

Cordish spokesperson Cari Furman said the company is still working with local residents and businesses to tweak the project to make it the most desirable. She said, “We mean what we say when we talk about serving as a true partner to the community. Our project is the one that brings the highest economic value and community benefits to the city and local residents, and for that reason, we expect that it will ultimately get the greatest support.”

The company said the projected economic impact for the city would be $5.3 billion in the first 10 years. The 1.9 million square foot venue is projected to create 5,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs.

Plans also are moving forward for the $300 million Rivers Casino in Portsmouth, projected to open in fall 2022 with a gaming floor, sports wagering lounge, event center, outdoor entertainment venue and several bars and restaurants.