Chips on the table
Will Norfolk and Portsmouth go all in for casinos?
On Election Day, Norfolk and Portsmouth voters will decide whether to hold ’em or fold ’em.
The two Hampton Roads cities will consider separate Nov. 3 ballot referendums on large casino projects that promise jobs, tax revenue, increased area tourism and funds for school construction.
“It’s new for Virginia, for sure,” says Jay Smith, spokesman for the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is proposing a 13.4-acre, $500 million waterfront casino resort next to Norfolk’s Harbor Park, with investor Jon Yarbrough, a Tennessee billionaire with close ties to the Indian gaming industry. “For years, people have been driving from Virginia across the Potomac to Maryland or Delaware or Atlantic City to spend their dollars. This is an opportunity to keep that money in Virginia and bring outside visitors here.”
Smith says the casino’s benefits are many and stresses that there is no public investment. “There’s not a dime of public money or tax incentives to do this. But what it means for education dollars is an estimated $50 million every year for public school construction and more than $30 million a year just for the city of Norfolk through gaming and sales taxes.”
Due to new legislation, the state will allow casinos in five economically challenged Virginia cities, including Norfolk and Portsmouth, but citizens have to vote “yes” to get in the game. To be added to the ballot, both the Pamunkey Tribe and Rush Street Gaming, the Chicago-based company behind the $300 million Rivers Casino project in Portsmouth, had to get the backing of their respective city councils and win preliminary certification from the state Lottery Board.
“The state legislature made sure that the minimum investment would be $300 million, to encourage the building of higher-end resorts and destination places rather than just places to gamble,” says Jared Chalk, executive director of the Norfolk Economic Development Authority. He points out that the Pamunkey casino would offer an adjoining hotel, restaurants, entertainment venue and spa.
About a 15-minute drive away across the Elizabeth River, the proposed 400,000-square-foot Rivers Casino Portsmouth is projected to generate $16.3 million in annual city tax revenue for the city, says Robert Moore, director of Portsmouth Economic Development, which estimates that the complex would produce 1,400 construction jobs and 1,200 permanent jobs.
Rivers Casino would also be one part of a larger entertainment district, Moore says. “It won’t just be a gaming facility but restaurants, a hotel, shops, an outdoor entertainment venue and convention meeting space.” Planned for 50 acres at the intersection of Victory Boulevard and I-264, the district would also be near Bide-A-Wee Golf Course.
“From the first time we saw the Victory Boulevard site, we knew it was the perfect place to build a casino,” says Jacob Oberman, senior vice president of development for Rush Street Gaming, which owns and operates resort casinos in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Illinois and New York. “We’re going to apply the best practices we’ve learned from operating our other casinos, which have been economic catalysts for their cities.”
The two Hampton Roads projects join similar local casino referendums up for voter consideration in Danville and Bristol on Nov. 3. Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Hard Rock International, respectively, would front those potential projects. Richmond voters will consider a gambling resort on the November 2021 ballot, and Smith says that the Pamunkey Tribe, which recently purchased 270,000 square feet of warehouse space in Richmond’s Manchester district for $4 million, will be among the bidders for that casino, which will require Richmond City Council’s approval.
But can the coastal region sustain two large casino projects within about six miles of each other?
Oberman is sure it can, citing Rush Street’s research on Portsmouth. “We’re ready to move forward,” he says. Chalk cites the General Assembly, which commissioned a 2019 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report that reviewed the potential benefits of gaming in Virginia. “They found that two mega-casinos could coexist profitably in the region,” he says. “And now it’s up to the voters.”