Would-be casino operators have gotten two local city governments on board with the idea of major gambling resorts. They won conditional approval from the state legislature.
Now, they’ve just got to convince the citizens.
With November referendum votes looming in both Norfolk and Portsmouth, the hopeful casino operators are starting an offensive to woo voters into the “yes” column. Meanwhile, some residents still have concerns over what they call a lack of state and local government transparency around the proposals.
Under the law passed this year that opened up casino gambling in Virginia, each city has to hold its own referendum vote so residents can vote a casino up or down.
The referendums will appear on the Nov. 3 ballots, alongside the presidential, Senate and U.S. House races.
In Norfolk, where the Pamunkey Indian Tribe is planning a major waterfront casino resort near Harbor Park, a pro-casino group backed by the tribe is kicking back into gear after a few quiet months.
The group was formed last fall, when opposition to the casino deal threatened a deal with the city. Backed by the tribe and its public relations firm, the group includes Norfolk residents and pushed back against opponents.
Eventually, after a pair of petition efforts, public hearings on the casino deal and a change to the terms in December, the city and the tribe are in agreement and ready to move forward.
All In for Norfolk Casino has unveiled a revamped website also asking people to vote “yes” on the Norfolk referendum.
But when describing the expected impact of the new casino, the website cites inflated figures, including some seemingly based on early predictions of a much larger and more exclusive project. For instance, the All In site indicates the casino would bring Norfolk $30 million a year in tax revenue. Norfolk’s own estimates, based on the revised project expectations from December, pegged the tax revenues at more like $6.4 million.
The tribe is also the sole contributor to the Yes Norfolk PAC, which received $70,000 from the tribe earlier this month, according to data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project. It’s not clear what, if anything, they’ve spent on just yet.
A similar group has cropped up in Portsmouth and already started sending out fliers.
That city teamed up with a group called Rush Street Gaming from Chicago to develop and run a “$300 million, 400,000-square-foot” casino resort on a 50-acre site near Portsmouth’s Tidewater Community College campus.
This week, residents in that city started getting mailers reading “Something exciting is coming to Portsmouth” with a rendering of the proposed casino complex. The mailers talked about creating jobs and investing in Portsmouth’s future and asked the recipients to vote “Yes” on the referendum that will be included on the ballot in November.
The organization listed on the flier, Vote Yes Portsmouth, is funded solely by Rush Street Gaming, according to the VPAP data. The gambling venture put $107,600 into the group in June.
The resorts in Norfolk and Portsmouth would include hotels and restaurants in addition to the casinos.
Both the Pamunkey Tribe and Rush Street recently got preliminary certification from the state Lottery Board, a requirement to go ahead with the November referendums.
But there are still some who aren’t convinced.
“I have nothing against casinos, but I do have a problem with the complete lack of transparency that has characterized everything about the Pamunkey deal from day one,” wrote Alan Smith, a downtown Norfolk resident, in an opinion piece published in The Virginian-Pilot in early July.
Transparency concerns were central to the earlier opposition and petition efforts in Norfolk.
Efforts by The Pilot to review early-stage gambling license applications made to the Lottery Board earlier this year by both Rush Street and the Pamunkey Tribe were rebuffed by the board. Representatives cited state law that allows them to keep such documents secret from the public indefinitely. (The exemption, like many in the state Freedom of Information Act, is discretionary, meaning the state can choose to release it. But the lottery board chose to keep it secret.)
Smith also raised concerns about longstanding environmental issues with the site near Harbor Park, and about understudied impacts of a brand-new casino on nearby businesses, like restaurants and entertainment venues.
Ryan Murphy, 757-739-8582, email@example.com
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