PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Developers looking to bring a casino to Portsmouth say they are also committed to building a hotel as part of the project, even though, as of now, they don’t know when construction would start — and legally they may never have to build it.
An executive with Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming doubled down on his company’s commitment to building the hotel Tuesday evening during a City Council work session. The development team gave an update on the entire project during the meeting.
Plans are still moving forward to build a $300-million Rivers Casino off Victory Boulevard, near where it intersects with Interstate 264. The project team predicted the facility could open as soon as fall 2022 with a gaming floor, sports wagering lounge, event center, outdoor entertainment venue and multiple bars and restaurants.
But for the first time, Rush Street Gaming acknowledged publicly on Tuesday that a hotel will not likely be around for their grand opening, even though it continues to be featured prominently in their marketing materials.
As 10 On Your Side first uncovered in October, Rush Street Gaming is not required to start building the hotel component of their project immediately because voters in Norfolk approved a casino and hotel of their own — a different project than the one proposed by Rush Street Gaming.
At the time, a casino expert described the language as a contingency he’s “not too familiar with.”
On Tuesday Mike Tobin, senior vice president for Rush Street Gaming, tried to give a curious city council more context on the decision.
“Our goal is … to be the first permanent casino open in the state of Virginia. So we are really focused on getting the casino as open as quickly as possible,” Tobin said. “Our goal is to get the hotel open at the time that it can be most effective for being a successful addition to the community of Portsmouth.”
Tobin’s position is that COVID-19’s effects on the hospitality industry make designing the hotel challenging. He explained he wants to make sure the hotel has “the right types of rooms” and “right mix of rooms” so that people in the hotel are comfortable coming and participating in other parts of the project. Tobin said his team would study the market to see what kind of travelers their hotel could expect to attract.
Rush Street owns four other casinos. Only one of the other properties currently has a hotel, but another hotel at the company’s Pittsburgh property is expected to come online within the year.
“The last thing any of us want to do is have a hotel that opens to the wrong time relative to the hospitality market and is not successful. Because that will hurt the community and be detrimental to the revenues of the casino,” Tobin said.
The development agreement signed in May 2020 between the city and Rush Street Gaming lays out three scenarios that would force them to build a hotel and conference center.
The first scenario is already out of the picture. Planning for both the hotel and conference center in Portsmouth would have had to begin if the referendum to approve casino gaming in Norfolk failed last November. The referendum passed. Norfolk’s resort casino — which would be developed by the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in partnership with Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough — is planned for just over 13 acres next to Harbor Park.
Rush Street Gaming has not publicly explained why the approval of Norfolk’s resort casino would have impacted when or if it builds the hotel component for the Portsmouth casino. However, Portsmouth’s economic development director said “market conditions” would play a role in what is ultimately built in Portsmouth.
So now — in the second scenario under the development agreement — Norfolk’s competing casino must be open for a full year and net gaming revenue for Portsmouth’s casino must reach $175 million in that same time frame for the developer to be obligated to build the hotel and convention center. If Portsmouth’s net gaming revenue reaches $250 million in a straight 24-month period, they would also be compelled to build.
In the case that neither of those benchmarks are reached after four years and Rush Street Gaming hasn’t started to plan for a hotel, the city has the option to bring another developer to do the job.
The whole discussion Tuesday frustrated Portsmouth Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes.
“The citizens believe all of the amenities will be here at the same time,” Barnes said following the presentation. “They have to meet those checkpoints, if they don’t in four years, then the city is the one who will have to basically build the hotel. If the casino is not performing, who will build the hotel?”
Tobin told council members “absolutely we are building a hotel,” but when pressed by Barnes for a timeline, he couldn’t give one, citing again the need to study the hotel market in Hampton Roads.
“I’m sorry that I do not have a more definitive answer, because I don’t have a more definitive answer,” Tobin said.