Casino operators go head-to-head in Bristol and Richmond
Stakes climb as General Assembly considers gaming legislation
Casino operators are already maneuvering into position as they wait for state legislators to legalize gaming. The stakes are high, and in at least two regions multiple operators are competing to cash in.
In Richmond, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe has announced a $350 million casino within city limits, while the Colonial Downs Group and parent company Peninsula Pacific Entertainment — which runs the Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent County and four Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums across the state — says it wants to pursue casino status as well.
“Peninsula Pacific Entertainment has developed over a dozen major gaming facilities across the United States, and we stand ready to compete with any entity for the opportunity to help Virginia expand its gaming platform,” Aaron Gomes, chief operating officer for Colonial Downs Group, said in a statement this week. “Peninsula Pacific Entertainment has demonstrated our capabilities and commitment in Virginia over the past year by opening four extremely successful gaming operations that already provide millions of dollars in tax revenues while creating over 1,000 new jobs.”
Not so fast, said Jay Smith, spokesman for the Pamunkey Tribe, which have also proposed a $700 million casino in Norfolk. It has the backing of investor Jon Yarbrough, who founded Tennessee’s Video Gaming Technologies and has a long history with tribal casinos.
“Adding another facility like a casino to their existing monopoly at the expense of the indigenous people of Central Virginia doesn’t seem consistent with the values of the city of Richmond or the commonwealth of Virginia,” Smith said Tuesday. “Colonial Downs’ goals are different from the tribe’s goals,” he said, which include creating jobs for its members and working with communities to build businesses they need. In Richmond, the tribe has proposed building a workforce training headquarters near the casino that would eventually become a grocery store or a health clinic, depending on community input.
Smith added that Colonial Downs’ request is, “quite honestly, insensitive to the tribe.”
At the southwestern end of the state, Hard Rock Casino’s $400 million project in Bristol — backed by local businessmen Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy — faces competition from the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which has announced a casino project at The Pinnacle in Washington County with local developer Steve Johnson.
Meanwhile, legislation under consideration in the General Assembly would allow only one casino in each of five eligible locations: Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond.
Danville is the only locality with no announced bids, although the city put out a request for proposals that closed Jan. 13. A committee will review them later this month. Voters passed an off-track betting referendum last November that would allow Rosie’s to open a location in Danville.
In Portsmouth, Rush Street Gaming of Chicago has proposed a casino to sit on a 50-acre site. A cost has not been determined for the project, but the legislation being considered by the General Assembly this session would require casino operators to invest at least $200 million or more in each project.
The focus on gaming legislation comes after an extensive review by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission released last November after the General Assembly opened the door to legalizing casinos in its 2019 session. JLARC concluded that casinos in five locations would generate about $260 million annually in state gaming taxes and have a positive impact on their communities, creating about 1,000 jobs per casino.
Although the Pamunkey Indian Tribe is federally recognized and could pursue a tribal casino under federal law, the state’s proposed option would be faster and require less red tape, Smith has said. However, state legalization of commercial casinos also can lead to competing bids, as is being seen now in Richmond and Bristol.