All But Official: Hard Rock Casino Coming To Bristol

Posted on November 3, 2020 - Last Updated on November 4, 2020

Voters have cast their votes, and Hard Rock Bristol Hotel and Casino is coming to Virginia.

With 60% of the precincts reporting, pundits are calling it a win for the pro-casino set.

Bristol was one of four economically disadvantaged cities in Virginia that held a casino referendum this Election Day.

Bristol casino vote results

With 60% of the precincts in, Bristol votes are in at 1,716 votes in favor and 655 against, putting the measure ahead by 72% to 28%. We will update final numbers as they come in.

The question on Bristol ballots read:

“Shall casino gaming be permitted at a casino gaming establishment in the City of Bristol, Virginia at 500 Gate City Highway, Bristol, Virginia 24201 (former Bristol Mall) as may be approved by the Virginia Lottery Board?”

Bristol has 11,723 registered voters, and in a typical presidential election year, approximately 7,000 residents actually vote. However, more than 4,500 Bristol residents reportedly opted for early voting this year.

Hard Rock Bristol Casino details

With the votes tallied, officials can now move forward on the Hard Rock Bristol project. The $400 million resort will include, among other attractions:

  • 350-room hotel that will eventually expand to 700 rooms
  • 100,000-square-foot casino
  • 50,000-square-foot conference and meeting center
  • Sportsbook
  • Live-music venue
  • Amphitheater
  • Restaurants
  • Bars
  • Retail shops
  • Spa
  • Pool

The venue will pay tribute to Bristol’s rich bluegrass and country music history. As a result, officials expect the Hard Rock-branded casino to be a tourism booster to the city, which borders and shares much of its economy with neighboring Bristol, Tennessee.

The project developers aren’t requiring any public money, tax breaks, or other incentives. That’s one reason why the measure likely passed.

Key endorsements for Bristol casino ballot measure

In fact, the project faced little opposition outside a coalition of local churches. The religious leaders opposed the project on moralistic grounds and also questioned its long-term viability.

However, the Vote Yes for Bristol Referendum Committee blanketed the region with the developers’ vision for the project. Additionally, local business leaders, politicians, law enforcement and other emergency officials, the Bristol Herald Courier, and the Bristol Chamber of Commerce were among the many parties who endorsed the casino project.

Also, leaders from the Tennessee side of the border voiced support for the project and said it would benefit both Bristols. Jerry Caldwell, the GM of Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, also endorsed it just prior to Election Day.

From Bristol Mall to Bristol casino

The casino will be built at 500 Gate City Highway, the site of the Bristol Mall. It’s located just a mile off heavily trafficked I-81.

The once-booming retail center has sat mostly empty since 2017, though anchor stores started leaving en masse around 2011.

Throughout the buildup to Election Day, Hard Rock Bristol proponents boasted of the project’s ability to revitalize both the economy and the quickly deteriorating shopping complex.

Tentative Bristol Mall remodeling plans include:

  • The casino, the centerpiece of the project, will be located in the former Sears retail space and will face Gate City Highway.
  • The conference and meeting center will be in the former J.C. Penney location.
  • The hotel will be constructed where the southwestern parking lot currently sits.
  • The indoor concert venue will be situated where Piccadilly Cafeteria formerly operated in the mall.
  • The outdoor amphitheater, which could accommodate up to 20,000 attendees, will be built on currently undeveloped land near the west side of the property.
  • An employee training facility and other attractions will be situated in the former Belk location. It could also host a temporary casino that could open sometime in 2021 before the full resort is constructed.

Hard Rock Bristol’s impact on job and economy

Initially, Hard Rock Bristol plans to hire 2,000 employees with an average salary of $46,500. However, the jobs total could swell to 5,200 within seven years of its opening.

The per capita income for individuals in Bristol was $24,753 in 2018, with 18.7% of residents living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.

The project could also create nearly 1,000 temporary construction jobs to refit Bristol Mall for the resort.

Unlike some other proposed Virginia casinos, the Hard Rock resort in Bristol is expected to draw nearly a third of its visitors from outside of the region. As a result, officials expect the resort could generate between $15 million and $21 million annually in new tax revenues for the city.

A 2019 study from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) suggested a Bristol casino could generate $130 million in annual net gaming revenue and $35 million in annual net gaming tax revenue for the commonwealth.

Bristol casino next steps

The Virginia Lottery pre-certified Hard Rock International as Bristol’s casino developer in November 2019.

Local business leaders led the charge toward casino approval. In fact, Jim McGlothlin, chairman and CEO of The United Co., and Clyde Stacy, CEO of Par Ventures, first joined forces and began stumping for a Bristol casino in August 2018.

They’ve long maintained it’s a “homegrown version of a ‘moonshot’” that Bristol needs.

The commonwealth must first adopt final casino regulations.  Once it does, the Florida-based Hard Rock International can formally apply for a gaming license. However, the VA Lottery can take up to 12 months to render its decision.

Bristol casino developers are targeting a possible opening by late 2022. However, they have already floated the possibility of opening a temporary casino by late 2021. In addition to giving casino customers a sneak peek of the resort, the facility could serve as a valuable employee-training facility.

Hard Rock Chief Operating Officer Jon Lucas said the temporary casino could be constructed within six to eight months.

Photo by AP / Steve Helber
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Dann Stupp

Dann Stupp is a longtime sports journalist who’s written and edited for The Athletic, USA Today, ESPN and other outlets. He lives in Lexington, Virginia.

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