NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The developers behind Norfolk’s planned resort and casino say they are in talks with the city to open up a site with “limited gaming” before their permanent home is complete.
City Manager Chip Filer told Norfolk City Council at their annual retreat Friday that state legislation allows the Pamunkey Indian Tribe the option to apply for a temporary operating permit, as long as the temporary operation is in the “footprint where the casino will be located.”
Norfolk’s Director of Economic Development Jared Chalk confirmed the Pamunkey Indian Tribe approached the city to do just that.
“A temporary facility where you can go and play slots and get your players club card and whatnot,” Chalk said.
However, the possible location of that temporary gaming facility has some council members hedging their bets.
The Norfolk Boxing + Fitness Center and the Hits at the Park Restaurant are located on the first base side of the baseball park on the first and second floors.
The boxing center has been closed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and the restaurant is typically only open when the Norfolk Tides play.
However, now both are being eyed as possibly the home of Norfolk’s “first casino.”
“The Pamunkey Indian Tribe, in coordination with the development of its HeadWaters Resort & Casino, is excited to discuss with the City of Norfolk the possibility of opening a restaurant and lounge with limited gaming,” Jay Smith, spokesman for the HeadWaters Resort & Casino, said Friday. “No decisions have been made at this point, but we will continue to have conversations with the city about this opportunity. We are ready to make a major investment in the stadium, create job opportunities and begin providing tax revenue to the city, if this is something they would like to pursue.”
The federally-recognized Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which has a reservation along the Pamunkey River in King William County, has a development agreement with Norfolk to build a $500-million resort casino on more than 13 acres between Harbor Park and the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The project was approved through a voter referendum in November 2020.
Construction has yet to occur on the site, which has been vacant since The Boathouse music venue was demolished more than a decade ago. The answer as to why that hasn’t happened appears twofold.
First, Chalk said much of the site work still needs to be done. Both the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must issue the developers a permit before work can begin. In addition, he said much of the concrete close to the water is in bad shape. The city recently was awarded a $250-million match grant from the federal government to build the sea wall for the new casino.
“You can literally fall through some of it,” Chalk said.
The second reason no construction has started is the Virginia Lottery Board has yet to award any casino licenses.
“[The developer] is most comfortable breaking ground, particularly on the building, after they have the license in hand,” Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts said.
Roberts said that is expected to happen in the June/July timeframe and at that point, the ground can be broken. Construction is expected to take two years.
However, less than seven miles away, construction on Portsmouth’s $300 million Rivers Casino is progressing to the point where steel beams can now be seen rising above the landscape. That casino is aiming for a February 2023 opening date.
A temporary facility opening in 2022 would let Headwaters get a jump start on Rivers, in an already tight market.
“The mayor has stressed we don’t want a tent, we don’t want cargo containers, we don’t want a trailer with air conditioning in it. If you are going to something, we want to see it in a permanent spot. In something that looks good and represents the area,” Filer said. “The restaurant and the boxing center I think are absolutely possibilities for that.”
However, council members Paul Riddick, Andria McClellan and Tommy Smigiel expressed concern that a new home must be found for the boxing center before they commit to turning the site into a gaming parlor. Boxing has been viewed as a way to help prevent gun violence and Norfolk native Keyshawn Davis put the sport in the spotlight after his Toyko 2020 Olympic appearance.
“We need a plan in place before we consider that. Where that boxing center goes and who pays for it,” McClellan said. She suggested the city go back and ask the Pamunkey tribe to pay for the relocation.
Filer said the city has been looking at three alternative sites, but wasn’t ready to name them. He did say his ultimate goal is for the boxing center to find a home in the pending Military Circle Mall redevelopment.
“We have almost every single developer proposing a possible sportsplex,” Filer said.
Mayor Kenny Alexander asked Filer to work with the developer to see what can be done the move the boxing center as well as address parking concerns that could pop up during construction.
“You’re going to start to see an incredible transformation in this part of the city. Like no other,” Roberts said.