PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – The Rivers Casino in Portsmouth is the first freestanding casino in Virginia’s history.

Few are likely more excited about its upcoming opening Monday than State Senator Louise Lucas, who hasn’t played it close to the vest when she says she wants this casino to be her legacy.

“This is the first bill to be passed in Virginia that permits casino gaming,” said Sen. Lucas.

It’s an important distinction to make. When the doors open in Portsmouth, it will be the state’s first legalized gambling casino.

The word casino meant something very different in Tidewater less than a century ago, when the railroad would bring summer tourists to two of them at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. They were called Seaside Park and New Ocean Casino. They were amusement centers, where swimming, dancing and playing were the selling points.

Image from 1930s edition of the Virginian Pilot.

Gaming wasn’t legal, however it was big news when 41 indictments were handed up in the mid 1950s, as a Circuit Court judge looked to crack down on what was happening. Among those charged with having slot machines, operators of the Cavalier Hotel.

Fast forward to the 1990s, the lottery and horse race gambling were newly legalized. A younger Senator Lucas says she saw the revenue benefits it could bring to her cash-strapped city.

“I knew it had to be something that was going to be major, something that was going to attract other businesses, and I think this casino is going to do that,” Lucas told WAVY News 10.

Lucas first got behind proposals to bring riverboat gambling to the region, then regular casinos. Every time, the legislation died in the Virginia General Assembly; much of it do to opposition from religious and family groups.

But then, in 2019, Lucas’ luck began to change. She believes, in part, due to actions from neighboring states.

“There is a ring of fire around us. Casinos were coming up all around us,” said Lucas.

Buses of Portsmouth residents traveled to Richmond, lobbying lawmakers to allow their city to have a seat at the table.

In November 2020, the city approved gaming, by referendum.

“I’m anticipating that it is going to be a huge success.”

State Sen. Louise Lucas

Lucas says, aside from the extra tax revenue, she hopes it gives people here something to be proud of. “It’s not like anything we’ve ever had here in the City of Portsmouth.”

Win or lose, she’s happy to have finally gotten the deal done.