PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Regionalism doesn’t appear to be a word that will be associated with casinos in Hampton Roads.
For nearly a year, both the cities of Portsmouth and Norfolk have been touting their individual resort casino proposals as big win economic development projects. While originally pitched to be across the Elizabeth River from each other, Portsmouth reconsidered development at an inland site.
Following the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee’s (JLARC) report on Gaming in the Commonwealth, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City County) suggested that both Portsmouth and Norfolk consider going in together on one resort-style casino.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t talk about revenue sharing, they’re going to be competing against each other on each side of the Elizabeth River,” Norment said.
The report found that taxed at 27 percent, the proposed casinos in the two cities could be successful and contribute at a total $95 million annually in state gaming tax revenue.
However, if the state chooses to tax casinos closer to 40 percent as nearby Maryland and Delaware do, JLARC’s team found the scale of Norfolk and Portsmouth would likely have to scale back their proposals because of market competition. Revenues from Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums were also factored into the equation.
“At a 40 percent gaming tax rate, each (casino) property would be expected to barely meet the $200 million required capital investment,” the report read. “Casinos would need to reduce costs, such as employing fewer workers, to maintain the profitability required …”
The report also didn’t rule out the absence of additional amenities, such as entertainment centers and restaurants, with the scaled-down versions.
Norment said his comments encouraging the two Southside cities to combine were made from strictly a business sense. Yet, Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who sponsored the bill being considered by the General Assembly, is not going to stand for a casino to go up anywhere that’s not Portsmouth.
“We’re going to have our casino and that’s it! End of the conversation,” Lucas said. “I have been working on this for 20 some years. Not going to quit now.”
Lucas’ original bill did not include Norfolk as a community eligible for casino gaming. She believes Portsmouth needs the economic benefit more because of its high unemployment rate and stock of tax-exempt land.
“Now if the localities decide they want to [revenue share] then that’s on them, but that’s not the way I had envisioned it,” Lucas said.
In Norfolk, Mayor Kenny Alexander wouldn’t give a definitive answer to Norment’s suggestion.
“I think the process is very early, again this is a process. Remember I made it very clear from day one that the size and scope of this project will be determined by General Assembly actions, the market and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Alexander said.
Alexander did say the Pamunkey Indian Casino that had been billed at $700 million would likely now be more around $200 million. Instead of 3,500 jobs, Alexander said to expect around 1,000.
Last week, Council voted to establish a “Mayors Committee on Gaming” to study the issue further.
Casino gaming is currently illegal in the commonwealth, but Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Richmond will be allowed to host casino gaming if the General Assembly passes Lucas’ bill. Voters in each individual city would then have to approve of the gaming too before a casino could open.
Other cities are looking to be “dealt-in” too. Hampton’s mayor has said if two casinos are in Hampton Roads, one should be on the Peninsula.
“I just want us to get a shovel in the ground first,” Lucas said. “That’s my goal.”