Although officials were hopeful that temporary gaming at a makeshift Bristol casino could happen before the year’s end, it’s now looking unlikely for 2021.
In November, voters in the Virginia-Tennessee border city of Bristol overwhelmingly cast ballots in support of casino gaming.
That provided a green light for Hard Rock Bristol Hotel and Casino. The $400 million casino, resort and hotel could be a massive tourism magnet for the region.
As a result, Hard Rock officials optimistically announced plans to open a temporary casino before year’s end. It would precede the formal casino-resort and give the Bristol region the first taste of Virginia casino gaming.
But the initial timeline now appears unlikely.
VA Lottery: We can’t rush temporary gaming
When the Virginia General Assembly legalized casino gambling, lawmakers gave operators the ability to offer gambling at temporary facilities first.
Hard Rock Bristol officials quickly announced their intentions to launch early.
In fact, the plan was that the temporary Bristol casino would serve as a place to train new employees in a real-world environment. Hard Rock would develop the temporary casino at the former Bristol Mall. The site will ultimately host the full resort.
However, during a recent meeting of the Virginia Lottery Board, Executive Director Kevin Hall threw some cold water on the company’s plans for a possible late-2021 opening:
“We’re aware that at least one of the casino operators has expressed some eagerness to perhaps set up some temporary gaming. In fact, they have publicly suggested temporary gaming could occur as soon as December of this year. Let me state for the record: In light of all of the steps that are required between now and then … we believe temporary gaming as soon as this December is highly unlikely. (It’s) largely improbable; next to impossible. I don’t know that I can be any more clear.”
Why a temporary Bristol casino will have to wait
According to Hall, the proposed timeline for the temporary Bristol casino was just too accelerated.
Even temporary locations, he said, require massive due diligence. And even though they’re makeshift locations, they must have the safeguards of traditional casino locations. That includes a vetting process for suppliers and vendors, as well as employment background checks.
“Temporary facilities, just like a permanent casino, have to have the same extensive surveillance and financial accounting systems in place before they can open,” Hall said. “Every slot machine, even in a temporary facility, has to be linked to a central monitoring system.”
Local businesses told News Channel 11 they’re disappointed by the news. They had hoped a temporary casino could bring some tourism dollars, which are especially needed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hall suggested that early 2022 is a more realistic option for the temporary Bristol casino. The full-fledged Hard Rock Bristol is then expected to open later that year.
The VA Lottery Board approved preliminary casino regulations earlier in February. The lotto staff is expected to present permanent casino regulations to the board in July.
Meanwhile, the license application process for Hard Rock and other Virginia casinos will open in “a matter of weeks,” according to Hall.
“As the regulator, we’re building this airplane even while we’re flying it,” he said. “We have a statutory and a regulatory duty to make sure that casino gaming, whether it’s in a temporary facility or permanent facility, is done the correct way and with appropriate oversight, licensing, security and audit features. As the regulator, we are not going to be taking any shortcuts.”