Waterside operator sues Norfolk over Pamunkey tribe’s resort casino plans, city attorney says it’s full of ‘fiction’


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The operator of Waterside is suing the City of Norfolk and its top attorney, saying the city went back on its word when it assisted the Pamunkey Indian Tribe with the development of a casino — and not them.

The lawsuit filed by Norfolk District Associates — the LLC formed by Cordish Companies to redevelop Waterside in 2013 — contends the city conspired against them by not only pushing the interests of the tribe and its investors, but manipulated state legislators to make sure Cordish could never have a project of their own.

Cordish is asking for $100 million in damages in the lawsuit complaint, which was filed June 15. They are also asking a judge to void the city’s deal with the Pamunkey tribe.

The federally recognized Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which has a reservation along the Pamunkey River in King William County, is currently waiting for final Virginia Lottery Board approval to build a $500-million resort casino in Norfolk next to Harbor Park. The project was approved through a voter referendum in November 2020.

However, the operator of Waterside, Baltimore-based Cordish Companies, says they had an existing agreement with the city giving them first dibs to bring gaming to the city.

10 On Your Side first reported in March 2020, when Cordish signed an agreement with Norfolk and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority to redevelop the Waterside District, the lease agreement included language that would allow the company to expand the complex into a casino if gambling ever became legal in the state.

Cordish’s lawyers zero in specifically on the agreements clause that states the city “shall cooperate” with Cordish “in obtaining any Government Approvals necessary” to allow a casino to be built on-site.

Cordish owns and operates other casinos, including Live! Casino & Hotel in Maryland.

“[Norfolk District Associates] and its redevelopment contract were crystal clear: without the City’s commitment to make Cordish its exclusive developer for casino gaming, [Norfolk District Associates] would not undertake the herculean task and significant economic risks of redeveloping The Waterside,” the complaint reads.

Their 2013 agreement also included language saying the city would not “subsidize or provide a performance-based grant for a restaurant and entertainment development” of a certain size through October 2023.

Attorneys for Cordish argue this agreement was breached when Norfolk signed an agreement to exclusively help the Pamunkey Indian Tribe bring casino gaming to the city in January 2020.

It was that same month, a bill to legalize commercial gaming and casinos in Virginia was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly.

At that time, Cordish sent a letter to City Attorney Bernard Pishko saying the city saying it was in “material breach of multiple provisions” of its agreement with Cordish.

Cordish spoke out once more in November after voters approved the Pamunkey tribe’s plan with a nearly 2:1 margin. At the time, Cordish said they would move forward with a lawsuit.

The complaint also claims the city, NRHA and Pishko — who is a defendant in the lawsuit and who negotiated the original Waterside lease with Norfolk District Associates — conspired with the Pamunkey tribe and others to cover up “unlawful conduct against the Norfolk District Associates “through the illegal manipulation of state legislators, local officials, and the public.”

The lawsuit claims Pishko has a personal agenda in favor of the tribe and the tribe’s consulting firm involved in the casino project and purposely shuffled Norfolk District Associates out of the running when it came to the state legislation on casino gaming.

Before the final passage in Richmond, an amendment prohibiting a casino from being build on any land owned or subsidized by a housing authority was introduced.

In an interview on Friday, Pishko said he had nothing to do with that, and calls it one of the many falsehoods levied in the suit.

The lawsuit also claims Pishko said he was the “real mayor” of Norfolk — which he denies.

“There is no truth to their allegation that I said I was the real mayor,” Pishko said in a statement. “Their complaint is not based in fact and is so defamatory that they asked that if I accepted their offer to receive a copy in advance in order to discuss settlement that I would have to agree to not sue them for defamation. A filed lawsuit is generally exempted from defamation laws but a prefiled complaint is not. Their central allegation that the Waterside lease provides for Cordish to be the exclusive gambling operator is fiction.”

Pishko said he believes the city has honored all parts of it’s agreement with Cordish companies.

When asked why the city never reached out to Cordish to let them know about the forthcoming gambling legislation, Pishko said, “We had no requests from them, and we didn’t request them to renegotiate the lease.” 

He said if Cordish still wanted to try to entertain bringing their own project in, he would gladly meet with them.

“I have invited them to schedule time to meet with us to discuss it, and they have declined. And instead said. We are going to sue you instead. So no, We have absolutely honored all our obligations to them.”

Stay with WAVY.com for updates in this developing story.

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