Payout on a dream
Bristol started casino quest in 2018
“Get it done!” Those three words sent Jason Eige and Martin Kent on a mission to bring a casino to Bristol Mall before commercial gaming resorts were even legal in Virginia.
Eige, general counsel for The United Co., and Kent, the oil and gas company’s president and chief operating officer, vividly remember the day they were called to CEO Jim McGlothlin’s office to discuss turning Bristol Mall into a casino.
“It all started in the late summer of 2018, when The United Co. became involved with Clyde Stacy, president of Par Ventures LLC, who owned Bristol Mall,” Eige says. “He came up with the idea of a casino and called Jim, a former business partner. They both felt it would be something impactful for the region and the community, that it would provide another opportunity for those living and working in this region. We were told to get it done.”
Eige and Kent knew state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, had been fighting to bring casino gaming to Virginia for the past two decades to no avail.
“There was very little likelihood of success, but that didn’t deter Jim,” Eige says.
The two sought support from the community, the Bristol, Virginia, City Council, legislators, the Chamber of Commerce and more. As Lucas’ bill gained momentum during the 2019 General Assembly session, Eige and Kent attended the International Association of Gaming Advisors’ annual meeting to learn more about the industry.
“We went to their conference to meet operators and law firms that advise operators,” Eige says.
Their goal was to find an operator that was the best match for the region. “It came down to what made the most sense for the city of Bristol,” Kent says. “We also had to look at how they would fit into this market.”
Bristol solicited for proposals and used private resources to zero in on the perfect candidate, which turned out to be Hard Rock International.
“From day one, we said no public funds would be used,” says Eige. “We are not asking for grant funding from the city. This would be a private endeavor, and we are proud of that.”
Hard Rock became the clear choice for a variety of reasons, including its brand association with music and entertainment. That blended nicely with Bristol’s history of being the birthplace of country music.
“Hard Rock was intrigued with our heritage and background. We have over 100,000 people come to the racetrack for NASCAR on the Bristol, Tennessee, side. And, our music festivals draw tens of thousands of people,” Eige says. “They were impressed with Bristol.”
The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in the 2020 session allowing commercial casino gaming. Bristol — along with Portsmouth, Danville, Norfolk and Richmond — was one of the five cities allowed to have a casino, pending local referendums. Voters in four cities approved casinos in November 2020; Richmond delayed its consideration until November 2021.
Nearly 72% of Bristol voters approved the casino measure. “We had the highest margin of the four cities that had the referendum,” Kent says.
That percentage was significant, Eige adds. “People embraced this project. We wanted it to be a clear mandate that this community wanted this.”
The 90,000-square-foot, $400 million Hard Rock casino is expected to create more than 2,000 jobs once it is fully operational, as well as an additional 1,500 indirect jobs, with an average income of $46,500.
The resort hotel will have dining and entertainment amenities along with a 3,200-seat Hard Rock Live performance venue and a 20,000-person capacity Hard Rock Outdoor entertainment venue.
Once it is operational, the resort is expected to bring in up to $21 million in annual tax revenue for Bristol (nearly half of the current city budget) and attract more than 4 million annual visitors.
City manager/city attorney Randall Eads hopes the project will bring people back to the region. “We have had a decline in population over the last 15 to 20 years. People are moving out to find good jobs. We hope to bring families back,” he says.
Having the resort in the city is something everyone should be “proud of,” he adds. “It gives citizens the ability to be part of an international company.”
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