BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL)- Legislation to legalize gaming in the Commonwealth continues to move forward in the General Assembly. Meanwhile, leaders behind two competing casino projects in Southwest Virginia disagree on who originated the idea of building one.
Pinnacle developer Steve Johnson is hoping to build a casino on his 350 acres of undeveloped land in Washington County in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“We’re just moving forward with what we’ve planned to do for years,” said Johnson.
Johnson says Bristol Virginia City Manager Randall Eads and then-Bristol mayor Kevin Mumpower met with him in either late 2017 or early 2018 amidst concerns about The Falls development’s financial struggles. At the meeting, they asked Johnson if he would be interested in developing any projects within Bristol.
“I suggested to [Eads] he get with Washington County on a revenue share agreement,” said Johnson. “I was working on a project in Washington County, on 350 acres that could include a casino. I also told him Cabela’s was going to be closing, to give him a heads up. He had suggested maybe putting the casino in the Cabela’s box. I told him it was too small.”
Then in September 2018, news broke that a lobbying group hoped to build a casino in the former Bristol Mall.
Text messages Johnson shared between him and Eads from the time show Johnson saying, “you boys stealing my idea I see.”
Eads replied, “Gotta do what we gotta do. I told you Cabela’s would be a great place for one!”
Hard Rock announced its partnership with Bristol casino developers Clyde Stacy and Jim McGlothlin in November 2019.
When plans were announced for a casino at the Pinnacle in January 2020, Eads said, “There’s an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Eads told News Channel 11 on Wednesday that he did not steal Johnson’s idea for a casino and has been advocating for one since January of 2017, when he was first hired as city attorney.
“I made several comments to city management and to a few council members that in order to save the Falls, we’re going to have to do something different other than retail. I mentioned that we should have a casino at the Falls,” Eads told News Channel Eleven over the phone on Wednesday.
Eads said he also had a conversation about a potential casino with a local legislator in July of 2017. He said the meeting between himself, Mumpower, and Johnson happened at Johnson’s Bristol office in September 2017.
“To the best of my recollection [Johnson] had never mentioned a casino on that site. The only thing I recall him saying is he wanted to do a project on that site,” Eads said.
Eads shared text messages from December of 2017, where Johnson asks him, “You sure about a casino? Wouldn’t require additional legislation?”
“If you had been thinking about a casino, you would have known that legislation was to be required in Virginia to have gaming legalized,” Eads told News Channel Eleven on Wednesday.
News Channel Eleven reached out to McGlothlin and Stacy on Wednesday for further comment.
A spokesman affiliated with the Bristol Mall casino project’s Alliance Group, Andy Poarch, said the group was tied up with legislative matters all day. Poarch sent a statement reiterating the group’s previous statements about bringing jobs and tax revenue to the region.
“Since 2018, we have been committed to this massive economic development project for Bristol, which is a private development, funded with no taxpayer money. We plan to bring thousands of new jobs and millions in additional tax revenue to the region. We are excited to work with our partner, Hard Rock International, to develop a destination-scale resort and casino with a wide variety of retail, dining and entertainment amenities.”