Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Chief urges lawmakers to slow casino legislation process

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CHEROKEE, N.C. (WJHL)- Virginia General Assembly lawmakers are expected to vote Tuesday on legalizing casinos. The bill as it stands would open the door for a proposed casino and resort at the Bristol Mall. Meanwhile, Richard Sneed, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), believes lawmakers should slow down the legislative process.

“I’m always nervous in anything that governments are doing, when it’s like, ‘We have to do it right now.’ Usually the results are not optimum,” said Sneed.

Sneed and the EBCI have a competing casino plan in Washington County, Virginia. Their plan is in partnership with Pinnacle developer Steve Johnson.

Richard Sneed, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Inside his office in Cherokee, North Carolina, Sneed told News Channel Eleven he believes the tribe’s casino plans on the Virginia side of the Pinnacle have huge potential. But a competitive bidding amendment that could allow a Cherokee casino at the Pinnacle is not on the drafted bill in Richmond. This gaming bill advanced on both the Senate and House floors on Monday.

Additionally, casino development would still be restricted to five designated localities: Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth. This shuts out the possibility of a Washington County-based casino, one Johnson said would anchor a planned water park, golf venue, amphitheater, and more.

SEE ALSO: Pinnacle developer Steve Johnson shares vision for casino destination, advocates for competitive bidding process

“Within the city limits of Bristol, there’s not the land base to do a project the size and scope of what we’re proposing,” said Sneed.

Under the EBCI’s casino proposal, Sneed said Bristol could still benefit through a revenue-share agreement with Washington County.

“Those are agreements that would have to be worked out between the city of Bristol and the county,” he said.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

Current legislation would allow localities to select their casino partner with the help of the State Lottery Board. Bristol currently looks to approve the Hard Rock casino to be built in its former mall.

SEE ALSO: Hard Rock named operator of proposed Bristol, Virginia casino

“The other cities that were designated, have basically entered into agreements with a casino operator or owner-operator,” said Sneed. “Danville actually did an RFP, request for proposals. And they received seven proposals from top owner-operators, or top operators in the country. It demonstrates that when you have a true competitive bid process, you’re going to get input from top vendors from around the country.”

Sneed said the Cherokee’s interest in Southwest Virginia shouldn’t be questioned.

“I was kind of taken aback by some of the comments that, you know, ‘Well the Cherokee are just looking to get in this market.’ Yeah. So is everybody else,” he said.

On the eve of a crucial General Assembly vote, Sneed believes lawmakers should keep the door open to their proposal.

“This whole process has to slow down, to say, ‘Well look, what are the best options?’ If it’s not us, that’s fine,” said Sneed. “Because that means if there was a true competitive bid process, the benefactors are going to be the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Greg Habeeb, attorney for the Pinnacle casino project, shared a statement with News Channel Eleven over the phone regarding the General Assembly votes.

Habeeb said in part, “We are confident that the ultimate bill, which you won’t see until April, will adopt the JLARC proposal… the Public Procurement Act requires publicly competitive processes for state licenses. The bill currently does not do that. It delegates non-competitive authority to the localities. That’s illegal under Virginia law. We don’t think that will be the ultimate bill.”

You can read Habeeb’s full statement below:

“The legislative process is a very long process, and we’re just about halfway through that very long process. The General Assembly has made a lot of changes that we suggested. For a while we were sort of the only voice encouraging some changes. We’re encouraged to see the changes they made.”

“There are still two glaring deviations from the JLARC report. JLARC called for a statewide competitive process, and called for the application of public procurement principles at the local level. The General Assembly has not adopted either one of those JLARC recommendations yet. But we believe ultimately, they will follow the JLARC recommendations, they will follow the law. And we think they will enact a good bill that allows competition and lets the best, most impactful projects proceed.”

“We are a long way from done. And anybody who says otherwise doesn’t know the legislative process. We are just at crossover. A lot happens in the next four weeks. A lot happens in the six weeks after that with the governor. We are confident that the ultimate bill, which you won’t see until April, will adopt the JLARC proposal. A public statewide process that applies public procurement principles. The Public Procurement Act requires publicly competitive processes for state licenses. The bill currently does not do that. It delegates non-competitive authority to the localities. That’s illegal under Virginia law. We don’t think that will be the ultimate bill. We think the ultimate bill will follow the Procurement Act, and the bill they vote on tomorrow is just the next step in many steps.”

“We are nowhere near the final passage of the bills. Ultimately the General Assembly is going to do the right thing. They’re going to follow the JLARC recommendations. And they’re going to embody the principles of the Public Procurement Act.”

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