Man behind Portsmouth casino talks plans in exclusive interview


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Tonight only on 10, the man behind a possible casino in Portsmouth.

John Lawson heads W.M. Jordan, the largest construction management company based in Hampton Roads, and he sat down one on one with Andy Fox.

10 On Your Side met Tuesday morning with Lawson, and he ran through the process of how he got involved with Portsmouth, and how the possibility of a casino came up. 

Lawson says he has been in talks with Portsmouth for 2 to 3 years on developing waterfront property where the Holiday Inn once stood.

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Six months ago it was brought to his attention that a casino could be built on the site if legislation was approved by the General Assembly.

Six months later, state leaders are considering just that. A possible casino in Portsmouth, in Norfolk, in Richmond, in Danville and in Bristol. Those are all areas hit by unemployment, poverty and population decreases in the last year.

Another bonus for the Portsmouth site: Portsmouth owns the land.

“You could get it at a fair market price, and you have the city’s backing,” Lawson said. “The city has been public about that, and it does put it on the tax rolls, and you are talking about a hotel, casino, convention center and parking garage. The taxes are not only for real estate, but from gaming taxes, from sales taxes, from food and beverage taxes can be substantial for the city.”

When asked to describe the property where he wants to possibly build a casino, Lawson says, “It needs to be a destination, a great location, the view of downtown Norfolk, and up the Elizabeth River, but it’s not that easy to get to.” That’s what Lawson thought of the six acre site.

Perfect waterfront, but not a lot of room, and not easy to get to. “You don’t just drive by there. It has to be a destination, so when the idea of a casino came up I thought it was a perfect fit for that site,” Lawson said. 

That was six months ago, and today legislation is under consideration for a casino not only in Portsmouth, but Norfolk too.

Lawson doesn’t think you can build both.

“I don’t think the market is deep enough for two casinos that close together.” 

The question is: if two casinos are too close together do they squeeze each other in revenues making neither as profitable as they could be?

“Perhaps,” Lawson answered. 

If Norfolk built a casino, would Lawson walk away from the Portsmouth one? 

“It’s way too early to determine that,” Lawson said. 

Lawson’s the only member of the Portsmouth Resorts LLC, the entity that would build the Portsmouth casino. 

The new partners would be added if legislation is approved, because Lawson thinks people would vote yes for a casino.

“I think the residents of Portsmouth are likely to vote for it because they really need it … this is a home run for them. It is huge job creation, huge tax benefits, a tourist attraction which is very complimentary for other cities in the area.” 

As for the partners they could include Developer Bruce Thompson, who could be tapped to operate the hotel and convention center.

“Bruce is my partner in several projects like The Main, The Cavalier, and he is the best hotel operator I have seen, and I have talked with him about it, but he is not officially a submittal.”

Another point: the marina next to the property is a real plus.

“I like the view it has of downtown Norfolk, and I like the view up the Elizabeth River. It has always been an attractive site, and I think the marina adds a lot to it too. We do need to do upgrades, and we have talked to the marina operator there … and they understand.”

Lawson is waiting for legislation to approve a referendum vote for or against a casino. Lawson is confident it would pass and he could tap developer Bruce Thompson for help. 

Also part of the legislation, the Pumunkey casino just across the Elizabeth River in Norfolk.  Pamunkey Tribe Chief Robert Gray told 10 On Your Side, “I have no opposition to the Portsmouth plans, or anyone’s. We just want to have a seat at the table and ensure that we can have a successful operation as well. Again, Lawson is not so sure both would or could survive.”

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