Informed Norfolk Group Seeks To Stop Casino And Start Some Transparency

Posted on October 19, 2020

The Informed Norfolk Referendum Committee isn’t necessarily anti-casino. However, the grassroots community group is anti-this casino ahead of the upcoming referendum in the Virginia city.

On Election Day on Nov. 3, Norfolk residents could greenlight the $500 million Norfolk Resort & Casino with the ballot measure. By doing so, the downtown riverfront area near the Harbor Park baseball stadium would have a notable addition.

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is the official partner for the Norfolk casino, has blanketed the southeastern-Virginia city with pro-referendum messaging leading into Election Day. The Pamunkey tribe’s well-funded committee has also donated to and won support from state lawmakers and area groups.

However, Informed Norfolk is trying to make sure that residents see the full picture, admittedly with fewer resources.

“When truly talking about funds, it’s a David vs. Goliath situation,” Jackie Glass, an Informed Norfolk committee member and spokesperson, told PlayVirginia. “We don’t have the same funding to do radio ads all day, to donate to churches.

“That’s the gap, and it’s a gap in what you have available to you and what you don’t.”

In fact, Glass, a small business owner who’s active in community initiatives, suggested it’s not a simple black-and-white issue. It’s not about whether voters are in favor of the casino and all that’s been promised it. It goes back to something much simpler, she said.

“It’s not yes vs. no,” she said. “It’s yes vs. transparency.”

In fact, Informed Norfolk’s casino opposition focuses on three major points: the process, the location, and the deal itself.

How Informed Norfolk came to be

Informed Norfolk has been around in some form for more than a year. The current group includes many of the residents who were part of Citizens for an Informed Norfolk.

That group formed after the Norfolk City Council approved a deal with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe on Sept. 24, 2019. It set the wheels in motion for the proposed casino and entertainment complex.

The initial iteration of Informed Norfolk tried unsuccessfully last year to get the city council to repeal an earlier land sale agreement with the tribe.

So, why the opposition to the deal in the first place? As Glass said, it was lacking in many areas.

Among the supposed deficiencies, as detailed on its website, VoteNoCasinoNorfolk.com:

  • No open competition or public participation
  • No independent impact study for the deal
  • The Pamunkey tribe’s inexperience with casino projects
  • The distribution of tax revenue
  • Environmental and infrastructure costs

Glass said all of those concerns are a reason that Informed Norfolk isn’t completely anti-casino. Some residents simply oppose the deal, not casino gaming as a whole.

“I think it’s a mixture of the two,” she said. “There are people who are working with us in the group who just don’t want a casino. And there are people who are just like, ‘This deal isn’t right. It wouldn’t matter if it’s a Starbucks or a gas station. The way this happened is not right.’”

Complementing or competing on Norfolk riverfront?

Much of Informed Norfolk’s support has come from the downtown businesses along the Elizabeth River.

“Business owners get it because the city didn’t do an independent economic impact study,” she said. “And they get that, that they have no idea how this is going to impact or influence their businesses. And that’s one small piece. We’d do that for a Starbucks. To be honest, we did one for Starbucks. But we didn’t do an independent study here (for the casino). They allowed the developer to do it.

“That’s kind of like buying a house and you’re asking the seller to do your inspection. I wouldn’t ask the seller to do an inspection. I’m getting my own guy.”

While a casino could lure consumers and tourists into the area, Glass said it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make their way elsewhere. She spoke to some casino-goers about their habits in other locales. She didn’t like what she heard.

“Do you go visit the town (while you’re at the casino)? Do you go out and visit any other restaurants or anything else in that town?” she said. “The answer is always no. So then why would you do that here?”

Norfolk lacks any major professional sports teams and notable tourist attractions. As a result, casino guests may have even fewer reasons to leave the complex if it’s built.

Cordish Companies owns some of the restaurants in the Waterside District entertainment complex in downtown Norfolk. The list includes Blue Moon Taphouse, Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse, and PBR Norfolk. Cordish has provided support to Informed Norfolk. However, independent restaurant owners have also pledged dollars.

It’s bittersweet, Glass said:

“The biggest donations we got have been from those downtown restaurants. And during a pandemic … it kind of breaks your heart a bit to take money from restaurants because of what state we’re in now. We know they probably don’t have the money to donate to us, but they’re doing it because they understand.”

Plus, casinos could have a built-in advantage by being a one-stop-shop for entertainment seekers, likely with an off-ramp leading right to the property.

“Where this is going to be located is across from an interstate,” Glass said. “And again, just understanding how casinos work as an incubator – you stay there, you drink here, you sleep here, you eat here.”

Life after Norfolk casino referendum

Glass, a former Navy cryptologist, said she’s not personally against casinos, per se.

However, she said it’s hard to ignore their potential ripple effect.

“I don’t always think they’re a bad deal, but I do know I have a healthy understanding of what they do to communities,” she said. “That part of it? I just can’t say I love or I value what they do to communities. … But I also believe I’m not someone else’s moral compass. I don’t believe in that. I believe in the democratic process, and I think (opposing the) referendum is the right thing to do.”

And even if the voters ultimately decide they want the casino, the work doesn’t stop for Glass and her Informed Norfolk colleagues.

“We have to hold folks accountable when we talk about hashing out that agreement … so it’s not detrimental to the city and the citizens,” she said.

And if Informed Norfolk’s efforts do help sway voters into a no vote and the referendum fails?

“We still need to develop. The city is still going to need to be developed,” she said. “We have to be good stewards for our local leadership.”

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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