Waterside operators threaten to sue Norfolk if Pamunkey casino deal isn’t terminated, claiming city must partner with them

Norfolk

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The operator of Norfolk’s Waterside District is threatening to sue the city if the agreement calling for a resort casino built by the Pamunkey Indian Tribe isn’t terminated.

In a letter sent to Norfolk’s city attorney last month, a lawyer representing the Cordish Companies — the operator of Waterside — writes that the city is in “material breach of multiple provisions” of its agreement with Cordish, and that the city must make the necessary changes within 90 days.

Mainly, lawyers for Cordish argue that when Norfolk signed an agreement to exclusively help the Pamunkey Indian Tribe bring casino gaming to the city, it echoed a similar agreement Cordish made with the city back in 2013.

When Cordish signed an agreement with Norfolk to redevelop the Waterside District, it included language that would allow the company to expand the complex into a casino if gambling ever became legal in the state.

Back on Jan. 13, referencing the pending legislation, attorneys representing Cordish wrote the city seeking to invoke its clause that upon request “The city shall cooperate … in obtaining any Government Approvals necessary to enable the premise to be utilized as casino or other gaming establishment.”

Cordish owns and operates three other casinos, including Live! Casino & Hotel in Maryland. In the letter obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, attorneys say they plan to open two more in 2020, in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

The letter concludes with Cordish extending an invitation for city representatives to visit their Maryland property, adding “we are excited about the opportunity to add casino gaming as part of the Waterside development.”

The next day, another letter arrived to Norfolk City Hall with a very different tone. This time, there was no invite to meet up, rather a threat of legal action.

The Washington D.C.-based Stein Mitchell Beato & Missner law firm pointed out in a February letter that Norfolk agreed to not “subsidize or provide a performance-based grant for a restaurant and entertainment development” of a certain size through October 2023.

While several Norfolk leaders have supported the deal with the Pamunkey tribe — touting no public incentives were offered — attorneys for Cordish, argued that a “subsidy” was provided when the city provided an “extremely valuable economic benefit — exclusivity.”

Norfolk City Attorney Bernard Pishko wrote back to the Cordish attorney’s several times and on February 21 wrote “the City is not legally obligated” to assist Cordish to shape any such legislation. However, he left the door open for cooperation, asking for proposals and plans the company had to lobby the General Assembly.

Lobbyists with Principle Advantage Government Relations Group have been working the Pamunkey deal since January 2019 and were guaranteed at least a $100,000 payment from the taxpayers through the end of September 2019 for their work.

Currently proposed legislation to legalize gaming would require Norfolk to give the Pamunkey tribe priority when selecting a developer.

Jay Smith, a spokesperson for the Pamunkey tribe, also declined comment saying “they were not aware of the issue.”

Pishko’s office declined comment to WAVY.com for this story citing legal matters. Mayor Kenny Alexander, who was not mayor when Cordish and Norfolk first partnered, did not return calls from 10 On Your Side asking if he was aware of the deal with Cordish signed years earlier.

However, the city and the company are not new to courtroom meetings.

Currently, Norfolk District Associates, which is the LLC Cordish uses for Waterside, is contesting its tax assessment.

The Cordish Company also did not respond to a request for comment.


CORRECTION: An original version of this story identified Access Point Public Affairs as the cities retained lobbyist. They were part of the lobby team retained by the city but only worked public affairs. WAVY-TV regrets the error.

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