NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Less than 24 hours after Norfolk voters signaled their approval for building a $500-million resort-casino next to Harbor Park, the project is facing another potential hurdle.
On Wednesday, the day after the election, Waterside operator Cordish Companies announced they planned to sue the City of Norfolk. No lawsuit had been officially filed as of Wednesday afternoon.
Cordish has said they have the right to build the first casino in the city, per an agreement they signed with Norfolk to redevelop the Waterside District.
That agreement included language that would allow the company to expand the complex into a casino if gaming was ever legalized in Virginia. A bill allowing gaming in five Virginia cities — including Norfolk and Portsmouth — was approved this spring by legislators.
“The City breached its exclusive agreement with Cordish initially in 2018 and continued its breach thereafter. Regretfully, the City has left us no choice but to file suit to protect our legal rights and we will be filing suit in due course. It is the first time ever in our 110 year history we will have sued a city.”Zed Smith, spokesperson and partner, Cordish Companies
94 percent of precincts in Norfolk reported votes on the casino referendum as of 5 a.m. on Wednesday. Ballots already counted showed about 65% of people voted in favor of the referendum, while 35% voted against it.
The project includes a 300-room hotel, entertainment venue, spa, pool, multiple restaurants and a gaming floor for the casino. Overall, the tribe says about $30 million will be generated annually for the City of Norfolk.
The casino project is backed by the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, a federally-recognized tribe with a reservation in King William County.
“It wasn’t one part of the city that’s supported or opposed. We won 45 out of the 48 precincts. This is across the board the support of an exciting project,” said the casino project’s spokesman Jay Smith.
10 On Your Side reached out to Norfolk for comment on the possible lawsuit. They said until a lawsuit is actually filed, they do not have any comment.
The Waterside operator first threatened to sue the city in February.
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.
Cordish attorneys first contacted the city Jan. 13 as the legislation on gaming in the state was pending, reminding the city that it agreed to “cooperate … in obtaining any Government Approvals necessary to enable the premise to be utilized as casino or other gaming establishment.”
Then, in February, the law firm representing Cordish again wrote a letter, this time saying Norfolk agreed to not “subsidize or provide a performance-based grant for a restaurant and entertainment development” of a certain size through October 2023.”
The city’s attorney, however, wrote back on Feb. 21 and said the city isn’t legally obligated to help Cordish bring gaming to the city.
Cordish was also fueling a group in opposition of the Pamunkey tribe’s project.
A post on Vote NO Norfolk Casino’s Facebook page showed that the Baltimore-based Cordish Companies have a long-term retainer agreement with Red Banyan — the public relations company that has been helping those hoping to defeat the casino referendum.
As of Sept. 30, Banyan has provided $2,880 in “in-kind” services to the Informed Norfolk referendum committee. Mainly, they had contacted media and conducted research.
As part of the Norfolk casino project, the tribe plans to use $150,000 finance a much-needed grocery store in the St. Paul’s neighborhood, which is now considered a food desert.
The next step for the Norfolk project includes getting city permits and announcing the construction team.
Smith says recruiting and training for jobs will also come as that construction gears up.
“We’re going to be working with local universities, workforce development organizations to find the staff that’s going to actually support the casino and resort. We’re talking 2,500 jobs,” said Smith.
The tribe has set the goal of having 90% percent of the resort and casino’s workforce be residents of Norfolk or surrounding localities and 50% of individuals from minority groups.
Smith says the groundbreaking is scheduled for early spring.
Then, the project is supposed to be complete by the end of 2022.
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