NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — While in less than a month slot levers are scheduled to be pulled, dice to be tossed and cards to be shuffled inside Virginia’s first permanent casino in Portsmouth, not an inch of dirt has been turned on the site of Norfolk’s proposed casino.
In recent weeks the status of the project has been questioned by residents and lawmakers alike.
Norfolk City Manager Chip Filer said while it may not look like anything is happening, a lot of work is still occurring behind the scenes.
“I think we all wish this was a situation where we all wish we had a big open field and could start building our casino,” Filer said. “(Our) site’s pretty challenging.”
The federally-recognized Pamunkey Indian Tribe, in partnership with Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough, 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 line on the banks of the Elizabeth River.
Voters approved of the idea via referendum the same day as Portsmouth’s voters. However Filer said since that time, more complications have arisen.
While challenges already existed when it came to working around the Norfolk Tides and Amtrak for construction, this year the city was awarded a $250-million match grant from the federal government to build a sea wall downtown, which includes the area where the casino would go.
Then over the summer, it was no dice for a plan to put a temporary casino in Harbor Park. Instead, developers said they’d move to build a temporary casino on the site that will eventually be home to the permanent facility.
“Created a host of problems from where the laydown will go, how you’ll build the temporary and start construction of the permanent at the same time,” Filer said.
While the tribe has applied to receive its gaming license from the Virginia Lottery Board, it will not be issued until they see a facility built, according to Filer. Filer said the city will not be transferring any land to the tribe until they see assurances that they have the financial capacity and site plan for the permanent facility.
“We are going to transfer and convey land when we see a facility, we see a site plan we see a sequencing and we know and feel confident that we can make it actually work,” Filer said.
Thus far, the tribe has only submitted its site plan for the temporary facility to the city, which was slated to open in March 2023 with a groundbreaking this year. A tribe spokesperson said they were not able to get an update on when the full site plan would be submitted.
Within the last month, Del. Barry Knight, (R-Virginia Beach) wrote a letter to Filer regarding the casino. Knight sponsored legislation that made sure Norfolk was one of five cities permitted to host casino gaming in the Commonwealth, even though it is not in his district.
While the city withheld the letter, citing a Freedom of Information Act exemption that protects communication between a state lawmaker and CEO of and city, several sources not authorized to speak publicly said Knight was critical of the project’s progress.
Knight didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
While state law doesn’t require Norfolk’s casino to be developed a particular group, agreements made between the tribe and city likely continues their partnership for another two years.
An “option to purchase” agreement inked on January 10, 2020 says the tribe must pay $100,000 a year to the city in order to have up to five years to close on the more than 13 acres of land. Filer said they are not in default of that agreement.
While a public update hasn’t been made since last summer, City Council has discussed the project several times in closed session over the last few months.
Even with all the complications, Filer said the city has not fumbled the ball.
“This is the right location for our casino,” Filer said. “We’re as interested at getting this ball going as anybody.”