The General Assembly passed a measure this year permitting those localities to consider gambling after officials there pleaded for help in boosting their economies. A fifth city, Richmond, also won clearance from lawmakers to consider a casino but opted to wait another year before putting it on the ballot.
It is a landmark change — Virginia is one of only 10 states with no casinos.
Despite the lopsided votes, residents in each case had launched vigorous opposition campaigns. The debate turned particularly rancorous in Norfolk, where opponents portrayed the deal as bad for the city and financially unviable.
The opposition campaign was partly funded by the Cordish Cos., the Baltimore developer that operates a downtown Norfolk commercial center called Waterside. Cordish claimed it had negotiated the right to have first dibs on a potential project if the state ever legalized casino gambling.
Last week, a Cordish executive told a Norfolk television station that the developer intended to file a lawsuit to block the deal. The company did not respond to a Washington Post request for comment.
Norfolk’s political and business leaders have lined up behind the project, which is sponsored by the Pamunkey Indian tribe in partnership with Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Kurt Krause, head of the Visit Norfolk tourism group. “To add a casino, I think, makes Norfolk an incredibly attractive destination.”
Opponents from a group called Citizens for an Informed Norfolk renewed charges that the casino was being railroaded into a low-income, predominantly Black area on the waterfront.
“We will be vigilant partners in the planning process, licensing [and] hiring practices while ensuring our city has measurable accountability for the entire existence of the casino,” Jacqueline Glass, one of the leaders of the group, said via email.
Backers say the $500 million casino and hotel complex will create nearly 2,500 full-time jobs and generate as much as $30 million a year in tax revenue for the city.
“We are moved beyond words by the tremendous display of support we’ve received from the Norfolk community,” Robert Gray, chief of the Pamunkey Indian tribe, said in a news release. The tribe, based near Richmond, helped build support by contributing to local Black churches and food pantries and has pledged $150,000 toward a grocery store in the neighborhood near the casino site.
The site is also close to a proposed casino across the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth being developed by the Chicago company Rush Street Gaming. That project promises to create 1,300 jobs and contribute $16 million annually in Portsmouth taxes.
A study last year by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that it was viable for the two projects to coexist and that building five casinos in Virginia could generate $260 million annually in state tax revenue. But the report said the best spot to put a casino would be Northern Virginia — which is not on the table — and urged that all the projects be awarded to developers through a competitive bidding process.
Only Danville followed that recommendation, selecting Caesars Entertainment for a project that includes a 300-room hotel, a conference center and an entertainment venue. That city along the North Carolina line has high hopes for its casino, which will be built over the ruins of the giant textile mills that once supported the entire region with thousands of jobs.
Some residents there have also complained that the project would be built near low-income neighborhoods and schools, but that did not translate into significant opposition.
Farther west, the city of Bristol, on the border with Tennessee, was one of the primary drivers of the effort to legalize casino gambling in Virginia, and it could be the first one out of the gate. Its proposed Hard Rock casino plans to open a temporary floor in an empty shopping mall by the end of next year.
Suffering from the collapse of textile and mining industries, Bristol has been desperate for a new economic focus.
“This is a huge opportunity for the city of Bristol and southwest Virginia,” City Manager Randall Eads said. “We have the ability to capitalize on an internationally known brand to bring visitors to our region and bring other economic development opportunities as well.”
The city expects to certify its partnership with Hard Rock by early next month, Eads said, and then the project will apply to the Virginia Lottery Board for a license. In the meantime, the project plans to seek a temporary permit that would allow the casino to start operating in an 80,000-square-foot space in the old mall while the new facility is being built on the same property, he said.
Each city has 30 days to certify its choice of a developer and notify the state agency of its intent to move forward, said John Hagerty, spokesman for the Lottery Board.
The agency’s legal team is drawing up a slate of proposed regulations for the industry and expects to present a draft to the Lottery Board by Feb. 3, Hagerty said. Once those are approved, they will go to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for review and must be in place by April.
The license applications will arrive after that, and the state will conduct financial and criminal background checks of each developer. “That’s a deep vet that can take up to one year to complete,” Hagerty said.