Portsmouth now rolling the dice on bringing a casino to the city

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – A possible casino could be on the horizon for the City of Portsmouth.

10 On Your Side has confirmed the waterfront property includes the former Holiday Inn site. It would include a first class hotel and about a 140,000 square foot casino on this property next to the marina.

Video: Rowe talks about possible casino development

The development group is called Portsmouth Resorts LLC., and 10 On Your Side has learned that developer John R. Lawson Executive Chairman with W.M. Jordan is a principle partner in the group.

Roughly 40 percent of the land is city owned and non-taxable.

This is big, exciting news, but it is not a done deal.  It is a work in progress and what is central is that legislation is passed this session in the General Assembly. 

If approved, the Portsmouth casino would generate around $52 million a year for Portsmouth, and 3,000 new jobs. 

The 140,000 square foot casino includes a first class hotel. The Harbor Court parking garage would come down making way for a convention center, and the Portsmouth Visitor Center and an empty lot in front of it would include some type of residential housing like condominiums.  

Video: Lucas announces plans for Portsmouth casino

Sen. Louise Lucas, who represents District 18, which includes Portsmouth, was first to speak at Monday’s news conference, where she announced the following, “I have been working for a number of years to bring a casino to Portsmouth to boost economic development and to create jobs. So I am extremely excited to join with my colleagues in southwest and southside to help make this a reality for these three localities: Portsmouth, Bristol and Danville.”

“All three of these localities are gateway cities,” said Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe. “The gateway to our great Commonwealth ought to be a place where people can get a job paying a decent wage.”

Mayor Rowe reports Developer John Lawson, who is executive chairman with W.M. Jordan, is a principle partner in the group. 

10 On Your Side asked Rowe about that at the news conference. 

“To answer your question, we have the site, we have the developer, we need this legislation … if you are reporting John Lawson, that is who it is, John Lawson. He is a very classy guy, perfection is one way to describe him … he has a strong track record of doing quality projects, not only in Hampton Roads, but the Commonwealth of Virginia … we are blessed to have John Lawson as part of Portsmouth Resorts LLC.”

For years, Lucas has been a lonely voice in the wilderness for casinos, but now with thousands of jobs lost in Southwest Virginia, Lucas has found an unlikely ally in Republicans. 

“Let this be our Amazon. I will be using that until we get this bill passed,” she smiled to laughter from  reporters gathered.

No one. Repeat, no one has worked harder to get casinos in Virginia than Senator Lucas. She reminded the audience, “I have been working for a number of years to bring a casino to Portsmouth, to boost economic development, and to create jobs.”

When Amazon went to Northern Virginia, and local companies laid off workers leaders from Bristol, where 1,000 jobs were lost, and Danville, also economically hurt, once opposed to casinos, now rethinking support for this new industry. 

Bristol State Senator Bill Carrico (R): “We all have one thing in common, creating jobs and improving the economy for the people we represent … I have been opposed to gambling, liquor by the drink bills in the past because they didn’t include public referendums.  The people had no say in that … but in this case they do.”

These are the projected figures showing the impact this project is expected to have in Portsmouth:

EMPLOYEES:  Projections indicate 2,000+ employees during year one of operations, growing to over 5,200 full-time employees by year seven.
YEARLY TAX REVENUE TO PORTSMOUTH AND REGION: $52.1 million in annual local tax revenue estimated after year seven of operation. 
LOCAL AND STATE ECONOMIC IMPACT:  By year seven of operation all revenue streams are projected to bring a recurring annual economic impact of $1.07 billion to Portsmouth and $2.09 billion total for Virginia.

A public referendum on the ballot for and against a casino is part of the deal. The question, which is part of the legislative bills reads, “Shall casino gaming be permitted at a casino gaming establishment in Portsmouth as may be approved by the Virginia Lottery Board.”

Casinos will not come without a fight. The religious based Family Foundation of Virginia is opposed to casinos. 

“The idea that Portsmouth is the only one that gets to vote when Suffolk and Chesapeake are, I mean, right next door is simply telling the people of Chesapeake, Suffolk and Virginia Beach that their voice doesn’t matter,” said President Victoria Cobb. 

Mayor Rowe keeps thinking about this, “our unemployment is higher than the state, considerably higher.  This is going to create 3,000 new jobs and this project is worth a half a billion dollars, it’s very exciting.”

This would be an extreme fast track to be complete in 3-4 years, but Rowe thinks this casino is an easier bet than the Pamunkey proposal across the Elizabeth River in Norfolk.

“I think the City of Norfolk project is a long time coming, and being challenged by another Indian tribe. To fast track that project is 6 years, but the average is 8 for it to come to fruition, but there is a good chance it won’t come to fruition.”

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