Voter Majority Say Yes To Norfolk Casino

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

The project faced some organized opposition, but Norfolk voters tonight formally greenlit the Pamunkey Casino Resort.

As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, 65% of Norfolk voters said yes to the casino referendum.

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe first announced plans for a casino in the southeastern-Virginia city in December 2018. In fact, the city of Norfolk and the Pamunkey tribe announced its partnership before the Virginia General Assembly even legalized casino gambling this year.

Lawmakers designated five economically challenged Virginia cities that would host a casino referendum. Four of them – Norfolk, Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth – voted this year, and Richmond residents will cast their ballots during next year’s election.

With the casino referendum being successful, the tribe will move forward on the potential $500 million riverfront casino and resort.

Norfolk casino vote results

Norfolk voters are poised to overwhelmingly support the casino measure.

It was a largely straightforward affair, especially considering how many ballots were cast before Election Day.

As the question on Norfolk ballots read:

“Shall casino gaming be permitted at a casino-gaming establishment in the city of Norfolk on property east of Harbor Park Stadium bounded to the north by Park Avenue, to the south by the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River, and generally to the east by Norfolk and Western Railway railroad tracks with an approximate street address of 200 Park Avenue, as may be approved by the Virginia Lottery Board?”

Like most of the country during this election cycle, many Norfolk residents cast an early ballot. Nearly 43% of Norfolk’s 132,000 registered voters took part in early voting. Just 5.3% of Norfolk voters voted early in the 2016 election.

Some of that early voting was likely the result of enthusiasm that proponents built in recent months.

The Pamunkey tribe garnered some goodwill by announcing community initiatives well before the casino referendum even passed. Tribe officials said that food security would be one of its key community initiatives in Norfolk. It even committed $150,000 to build a new grocery store in the St. Paul area, which had become a “food desert” after its lone supermarket closed earlier this year.

Additionally, the tribe announced it plans to hire 90% of its staff from the Norfolk area, and it wants 50% of its employees to be from minority groups. Additionally, it expects gaming revenue to help it contribute $3.5 million to $4 million every year for the Virginia Indigenous People’s Trust Fund.

Those for and those against

The tribe-funded All In for Norfolk Casino Committee focused heavily on those goals as it promoted the project.

However, the Informed Norfolk citizens group provided well-organized opposition against the casino. The grassroots effort garnered a sizable amount of media attention, which it used to highlight the tribe’s inexperience with casino projects. It also cited Norfolk’s lack of transparency in finalizing the deal, as well as the tribe’s complicated race history.

About the Pamunkey Casino Resort Norfolk

The Pamunkey Casino Resort Norfolk would be situated along the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk.

It will be on a 14-acre site next to the Harbor Park minor league baseball stadium, less than a mile from I-264. It would become the latest attraction to Norfolk’s popular and revitalized Waterside District.

Among other attractions, the Norfolk casino is expected to have:

  • 300-room, four-star hotel
  • Casino and sportsbook
  • Live music and entertainment venue
  • Bars and restaurants, including a steakhouse, sports bar, seafood restaurant and international cuisine options
  • Indoor and outdoor pools
  • Spa and fitness center

In addition to the city of Norfolk, the tribe will receive support from Tennessee billionaire and casino-gaming maven Jon Yarbrough for the resort development.

The Pamunkeys were Virginia’s first federally recognized tribe. Its reservation is located on ancestral land on the Pamunkey River, which is about 90 miles northeast of downtown Norfolk.

Economy, employment details for Norfolk casino

Officials expect the Pamunkey Casino Resort Norfolk to create 2,000 temporary construction jobs. A groundbreaking will likely take place in 2021. Additionally, the casino will fill 2,500 permanent, full-time positions as it nears opening, which could be in 2023.

The casino would become the fourth-largest private employer in Norfolk. In fact, that’s one reason the project garnered so much support in Norfolk, whose economy currently relies heavily on military spending and transportation/ports.

In addition to the hiring spree, the Pamunkey casino should boost regional tourism. Tribe officials expect more than 6 million people will visit the resort annually, with nearly 1 million of them coming from out of state.

As a result, the tribe expects the casino to have an overall economic impact of $850 million annually in the Hampton Roads region.

It would generate $50 million in annual casino revenue for Virginia K-12 education, according to Pamunkey officials. Additionally, it would account for nearly $30 million in taxes paid to Norfolk.

Next steps for Pamunkey Casino Resort Norfolk

The Virginia Lottery precertified Pamunkey Indian Tribe as Norfolk’s preferred casino partner in May.

Now, with the successful referendum, the Pamunkey Casino Resort Norfolk can proceed.

However, Virginia has to first finalize official casino regulations.  Once the lottery board does, the Pamunkey tribe can formally apply for its casino-gaming license. However, the VA Lottery could take up to 12 months to make its decision.

For now, the tribe will begin preparations to purchase the 14-acre riverfront site where the resort will reside. It’s expected to fetch Norfolk approximately $10 million – its full market price.

However, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe has a few unique challenges in the year ahead. It will deal with competition from a nearby Portsmouth casino that voters approved simultaneously approved with the Norfolk casino.

Additionally, the tribe is also the preferred partner for a planned Richmond casino. However, Richmond voters won’t determine the fate of that project until Election Day 2021.

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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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