Virginia Reacts: Casinos Approved In Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth

Written By Dann Stupp on November 4, 2020 - Last Updated on August 2, 2023
Voters made one thing very clear on Election Day: They're very much in favor of Virginia casino projects in the commonwealth. 

Voters made one thing very clear on Election Day: They’re very much in favor of Virginia casinos.

On Tuesday, voters in four VA cities – Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth – all voted in favor of their casino referendums.

In fact, voters approved all of the measures by approximately a 2-1 margin, according to the latest unofficial vote tallies.

Today, the Virginia Lottery board had one of its regularly scheduled meetings. In it, VA Lottery officials said they now await the certified results of the casino referendums, which should come within 30 days.

Afterward, they plan to review and vote on emergency casino gaming regulations in February. The executive branch will then review them and begin drafting permanent regulations.

Officials then expect casino operators to begin submitting license applications in late spring or early summer. However, they’ve warned that the application process and subsequent financial/criminal background checks can take up to 12 months to complete.

Regardless, the first casinos could open beginning in 2022, with most likely operational by 2023.

With the entire Virginia casino world taking a huge step forward on Tuesday, here were some of the reactions.

Bristol casino

All five precincts are reporting in Bristol, where residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the $400 million Hard Rock Casino and Resort Bristol. The initiative received 5,463 yes votes (71.1%) and 2,222 (28.9%) no votes.

Local casino backer Jim McGlothlin, who’s also the chairman and CEO of United Co., had been pushing for this project for years. He said it would be a “moonshot” for Bristol. Now, he’s ready to deliver:

“The voters tonight have positively said to us, we really want a Hard Rock casino in Bristol, Virginia, so many, many thanks for all the strong support and giving us the encouragement to do it. I am so excited to get this project going. … It is a new day for Bristol and its people. With Hard Rock as our partner, we’re going to do some good things, I promise you.”

A statement from the Vote Yes for Bristol campaign obviously had a celebratory tone:

“We are incredibly grateful for the strong support we have received from the voters of Bristol, VA. Today’s referendum vote to bring a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to Bristol is a vote in favor of more jobs and greater economic opportunity for local residents. This is a win for Bristol, and a win for the entire region.

“We know this project will transform the economy of this area and make it an even better place to call home, and we are incredibly excited to now begin taking the next steps to make it happen. We look forward to working with the VA Lottery during the licensing and permitting process in the months ahead.”

A Tennessee newspaper discussed the casino’s effect on its own state – and the effect on a North Carolina casino that has been the go-to option for casino-seekers in the region:

“Watch out, Cherokee, North Carolina. A new casino operation is on the horizon near the Virginia-Tennessee line in the Twin City of Bristol. Voters on the Virginia side of Bristol by a wide margin decided to take the chance gambling will help rejuvenate the community, the towns’ shuttered mall and maybe even the region.”

Bristol Vice Mayor Anthony Farnum said the temporary Hard Rock casino at Bristol Mall could open in as soon as six to nine months – with the permanent casino opening in as soon as 18 months.

Other reactions:

Danville casino

Danville voters also backed the $400 million Caesars Casino Resort Danville. In fact, the support was downright massive – 13,022 yes votes (68.7%) and just 5,951 no votes (31.3%).

Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones, who was one of the project’s biggest proponents, is nonetheless pleased that voters ultimately made the decision.

“As a City Council, we decided to put this back in the hands of our citizens. This process has been going on for quite some time, and the citizens tonight spoke, and they spoke that they wanted a casino in the city of Danville.”

Caesars Entertainment CEO Tom Reeg made special mention of the Danville businesses that pledged support:

“Caesars Entertainment thanks the voters of Danville for their support of the referendum that will bring Caesars Virginia to Danville. We look forward to fulfilling the trust the voters have placed in us by bringing 1,300 good-paying jobs, tourism dollars and economic development to the City, and we are incredibly excited to begin construction.

“We’d like to offer our sincere thanks to all of our supporters, especially the City of Danville team, our campaign steering committee, campaign committee co-chairs Delegate Danny Marshall, Mayor Alonzo Jones, Dr. Tiffany Franks and Tammy Wright-Warren, Campaign Director Steven Gould, Josh Norris and the entire campaign staff. We would also like to express our deep gratitude to the many respected business owners and citizens who shared the positive impact this resort will bring to the community with their customers, friends and neighbors. We are pleased to be welcomed into the Danville community and look forward to a long, successful future.”

Despite the convincing vote totals, reaction to the Danville casino wasn’t all positive. Virginia Business spoke to a problem gambling expert on the potential impact of the Danville casino and other resorts in the commonwealth:

Carolyn Hawley, president of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling, said in a statement that the referendums’ passage will “present a need for increased problem-gambling support efforts” in the state. “Gambling can be fun,” Hawley added. “However, it can be harmful to some people. We want to prevent such harm from occurring in the first place and help those individuals who may experience problems.”

Local journalist Lanie Davis is asking Danville residents to take part in a survey about the project.

Other reactions:

Norfolk casino

As of Wednesday afternoon, 46 of 49 precincts had reported in Norfolk. And for proponents of the $500 million Pamunkey Casino Resort Norfolk, it’s been good news.

Passage of the referendum seems a foregone conclusion with 65% voting in favor of the casino and 35% against.

Jay Smith represents the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is the preferred casino partner for the project (with support from Tennessee billionaire/gaming veteran John Yarbrough). Even without the final vote, Smith knows it’s all but over:

“While every vote deserves to be counted, the residents of Norfolk have made it clear that they are excited about a resort and casino coming to the Mermaid City.”

Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief Robert Gray thanked supporters:

“We are moved beyond words by the tremendous display of support we’ve received from the Norfolk community. To everyone who advocated on our behalf, shared our message with their friends and neighbors, put up a yard sign, wore a sticker, or simply voted YES, we cannot thank you enough. We look forward to working with you to make Norfolk even stronger for decades to come.”

Informed Norfolk, a grassroots citizens group, provided some of the best-organized Virginia casino opposition. The group has questioned the Pamunkey tribe’s lack of experience with such projects, as well as the deal’s lack of transparency. However, it wasn’t enough to sway Norfolk voters.

Other reactions:

Portsmouth casino

Voters also easily approved the $300 million Rivers Portsmouth Casino Resort.

With all 32 precincts reporting, the Portsmouth casino referendum got 28,723 (66.7%) yes votes and 14,344 (33.3%) no votes.

Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe was an unabashed casino supporter heading into Election Day. He lauded the voting results:

“This is a great day for Portsmouth. The Portsmouth voters have said yes to a new economic opportunity – an opportunity that will not only create great new jobs, but also generate more than $16 million in new annual tax revenues for our community. With Rush Street Gaming, Portsmouth has secured an excellent developer and operator of world-class destination casinos, with a track record of keeping promises, community support, and job creation. We’ve chosen our partner very well.”

Rush Street Gaming Chairman Neil Bluhm is obviously happy to expand his company’s gaming footprint. In a statement, he also said he’s anxious to contribute to the Portsmouth economy:

“We thank the residents of Portsmouth, the City of Portsmouth, and the Portsmouth Economic Development team for their support. We’re eager to get construction underway, so this strong economic engine for the Commonwealth and the local community can start producing benefits.”

The Portsmouth Economic Development agency issued a press release calling the casino a future “anchor of Portsmouth’s up-and-coming Entertainment District.”

Also in Portsmouth election news, Shannon Glover won a six-way race for the city mayor position. Coincidentally, he was the only candidate fully in support of the Portsmouth casino.

Other reactions:

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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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