WASHINGTON COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – The chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) said Wednesday he believes property near the Pinnacle in Washington County, Va. offers superior benefits for a casino location than does a long-envisioned site at the old Bristol, Va. Mall.
A state legislator, though, said he opposes opening the door for prospective operators to apply for a casino permit in Washington County along Interstate 81.
ECBI Chief Richard Sneed said Pinnacle developer Steve Johnson approached the tribe several months ago about the possibility of partnering to develop a casino on 250 open acres adjacent to the current Pinnacle site. Unlike the developed portion of the Pinnacle, the undeveloped acreage is in Virginia. Sneed said the tribe’s economic development arm and analysts from their partners with Caesar’s entertainment both vetted the project and like what they’ve seen so far.
“Right now … we’ve reached an agreement with Mr. Johnson and the Pinnacle Bristol,” Sneed said in a phone interview. “We still have to wait to see what happens with the legislation. Everything is very much in flux right now. We’re simply making it known that we see the opportunity at the Pinnacle as a win for Washington County, for the state of Virginia and also obviously for the tribe.”
Current Virginia law bans casino gambling. A bill considered last year designates five specific “economically distressed” localities in which casinos could operate. It includes Bristol but does not include Washington County in its current form. Lawmakers are expected to revisit the bill during the 2020 session.
Development group Bristol Resort and Casino has reached an agreement with Hard Rock International for a proposal at the former mall that has garnered significant local and regional political support.
Sneed said the quantitative analysis suggests a greater likelihood of maximizing success — and benefit to taxpayers through public revenue — at the Pinnacle site than the former mall.
“First and foremost is location,” Sneed said. “It makes the most sense, where if you look at the Bristol Mall site, the infrastructure around it, traffic patterns etcetera, don’t lend themselves to the large amount of traffic that’s going to occur.
“If you look at the Pinnacle site, all of the infrastructure’s in place already, you have access, I-81 from the interchange, you have four lanes running through the entire property up there, there’s traffic lights, curbing, sidewalks, water, sewer, all the essential infrastructure components are already in place. You have dining, entertainment, retail, there are plans to add Top Golf, there’s plans to add a concert venue, a mountain coaster, plans for a hotel with indoor water park. So the site itself already lends itself to the entertainment aspect that casino gaming would bring.”
Sneed also referred to the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) study, solicited by the General Assembly last year as it discussed the possibility of legalizing casino gambling, as supporting the tribe’s case in many ways. Those include recommending a competitive bid process “as opposed to having the legislation dictate where those licenses would be awarded,” Sneed said.
The study noted that other states use this strategy before awarding licenses.
Sneed also pointed to an aspect of the study indicating a desire to work with tribes that are historic to Virginia, and said Washington County is part of the tribe’s historic aboriginal homeland. He cited what he called the tribe’s 24-year run as owner operator of what he called the most successful casino in the “entire Caesar’s empire.” “So we check lots of boxes,” Sneed said.
Republic Delegate Terry Kilgore (Gate City), said Wednesday the proposal was “a little bit concerning.” He said he didn’t agree with a competitive process and that he’s set on the proposal at the old mall.
“I think it should be up to the locality like the city of Bristol or the City of Danville, the ones that we have included in our legislation to make that determination on how they want to move forward,” Kilgore said. “Let them choose who their operator is moving forward.”
The JLARC study specifically recommends the establishment of a committee to evaluate casinos include “individuals with business, finance, and operations experience and who represent both the statewide and local perspectives.”
Kilgore said the Bristol plan calls for a sharing of revenues with surrounding localities and that he supports moving forward with the Bristol project because “they’ve been in the game” and the ECBI/Pinnacle proposal would require altering the proposed legislation.
Sneed seemed to suggest that would be a disservice to taxpayers and that it would require disregarding important elements of the JLARC study.
“Obviously the legislators in Virginia, I respect their opinion,” Sneed said. “Purely from a business standpoint any time any government, be it federal, state, local or even a tribal government creates anything through a legislative process where, when we’re talking about business, and the competitive aspect is removed from it, that almost never bodes well for the end user.
“In this sense the end beneficiary are the citizens of the state, and when you have a competitive process that ensures that the operator that’s going to bring the best product to the market, that best product is going to generate the most revenue and in the end that’s going to generate revenue for the citizens of the state.”
Sneed said that as a fellow elected official, he’d encourage legislators to consider the study — including its recommendation of a competitive process.
“The study was commissioned for a reason, and it makes no sense to me to commission studies and to have all of these recommendations and then just say, ‘well, we’re going to ignore the recommendations,’ even though the recommendations that are being made are in the best interest of the citizens of the state as a whole.”
Sneed said the JLARC study recommended that Virginia hire a third-party subject matter expert to review all applications and determine which operating group “would bring the most to the table so that it would be to the most benefit of the state and to the local jurisdictions.”
He acknowledged the tribe and Johnson would need some help from Richmond.
“Obviously the bill would have to be amended for it to go countywide and not within the city limits.”
That said, Sneed said he believes objective numbers show ECBI and Johnson to be holding a pretty good hand should the process ultimately come down to third-party review.
“This is a free market opportunity, and in the free market competition is always best for the consumer and always best for those who are going to benefit and that obviously includes the state of Virginia and specifically, if it goes countywide, Washington County would be a direct beneficiary.”