It seems that no one involved with the HeadWaters Resort and Casino in the city of Norfolk wants to talk about it.
Norfolk’s City Manager was unavailable for an interview. The Downtown Norfolk Council was unavailable for interview. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe did not respond to an inquiry. Suffolk Construction did not respond to an inquiry. Neither Mayor Kenneth Anderson, Vice Mayor Martin Thomas, or Danica Royster, City Council Member for Superward 7, responded to inquiries.
It’s not hard to see why. The story of the Norfolk casino, a joint venture between the city of Norfolk and the Pamunkey Tribe, continues to be one of delays, conflicting plans and miscommunication. To put it simply and generously, the project seems to be in a state of dysfunction.
In 2020, voters in several cities approved Virginia casinos via referendum. In January of this year, Rivers Casino Portsmouth opened. Two other temporary casinos in Bristol and Danville have also started operations ahead of full-facility openings in 2024.
HeadWaters remains in the planning phase. It’s been difficult to get a full picture of what’s causing delays, or to get a concrete idea of where the casino’s path to construction leads.
Pamunkey tribe, Norfolk government not on the same page
As reported in The Virginian-Pilot on June 15, new renderings released that week showed changes to the planned project. Instead of a plan for a temporary casino, a new two-phase plan was proposed.
Phase One would build a 90,000 square-foot “initial facility” that would include a casino floor, restaurant, lobby, and sports bar. Phase Two would include the HeadWaters hotel, pool, entertainment venue, and spa.
One month later, however, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe withdrew a $150 million development application that was set to be presented to Norfolk’s Architecture Review Board. This was a marked shift from a $500 million plan presented years earlier. Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander told WHRO at the time, “We’re not going to settle for anything less than (the original plan), and we just want to make sure they understand that.”
More troubling news for the project came via the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO. The organization learned that Norfolk City Council Members discussed options for cancelling the city’s agreement with the Pamunkey tribe. It obtained information about confidential analysis that suggested negotiating with competing partners could spur the tribe to move quickly.
Or, as the memo reportedly termed it, “kicking the hornet’s nest.”
The two sides met in late-July
Under the cloud of these reports, Norfolk and the tribe’s development team met on July 25. Soon after, the city released a statement that called the meeting “productive.”
In the statement, Mayor Kenneth Alexander said, “The city is committed to this project and we look forward to bringing it to fruition with our partner, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. HeadWaters will be a tremendous asset to the city, its residents and the entire Commonwealth and will be [a] premier destination for many.”
In the same statement, Chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe Robert Gray said, “The Tribe has not wavered in its commitment to deliver on our promise to the citizens of Norfolk — to construct a result and casino of which the Tribe, the City and their citizens can be proud. The significance of this project to the region, the recognized tribes that will benefit from it and the entire Commonwealth cannot be overstated.”
Meeting details remain vague
The Pamunkey Tribe did not reply to PlayVirginia’s requests for an interview. Inquiries to the office of Norfolk City Manager Patrick Roberts and Norfolk’s Architectural Review Board were both routed to Chris Jones, Director of Norfolk’s Department of Communications & Marketing. The previous City Manager, Larry “Chip” Filer, resigned abruptly in late June and was quickly replaced by Roberts.
In email answers to PlayVirginia’s questions, Jones’s department deflected any blame for the project’s delays:
“The city has not contributed to or caused any delays in the project. Completion of the project remains a high priority of the city.”
The Department also wrote, “the city provides the public with updates as they are available.”
Norfolk casino optimism still present
Despite these frustrations, VisitNorfolk President and CEO Kurt Krause told PlayVirginia that Norfolk’s future is bright.
VisitNorfolk, a nonprofit that promotes Norfolk’s various experiences and amenities, benefits from the city being active and interesting. Krause told PlayVirginia the city boasts its waterside location, as well as great restaurants in a walkable, safe city. That said, he also understands local frustration about HeadWaters’ complex development process.
“Having negotiated tons of contracts in my life, I know there are items that are pretty sensitive and can’t be released to the public,” Krause said. “I’m assuming we’re in good hands on both sides.”
And Krause is also sure of something central else, to the ongoing frustrations and uncertainty surrounding HeadWaters Resort and Casino.
“I have all the confidence in the world that we will have a casino one day.”