WASHINGTON COUNTY, Va. (WJHL)- Steve Johnson calls his plans to bring a casino development to the Pinnacle, “the most extraordinary development opportunity in the entire state of Virginia.”
Driving around his 350 acres of undeveloped land, the Pinnacle developer pictures a project estimated to bring in $300 million in direct annual economic impact.
“Over here would be the amphitheater,” Johnson said, pointing out various spots in the landscape. “Over here by the interstate is the casino site. Golf entertainment venue over here, hotel-water park out near Gate City Highway.”
Johnson and his casino project partner, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, say total project construction is a $500 million investment on their part.
“The Eastern Band of the Cherokees are bringing a quarter of a billion dollars of their money for the hotel, resort, casino. The other quarter of a billion is on me,” Johnson said.
When asked if any taxpayer money will go towards building the project, Johnson says, “Not one red cent.”
Johnson said they’d also fund a $15 million road extension to connect Bass Pro Shop with Gate City Highway.
Once construction for the full project is complete, an estimated 3,300 jobs would be created.
But Johnson says it all hinges on the casino coming as the main draw of the development.
“The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, on the aboriginal territory, is the anchor to pull in the amphitheater, the golf venue, the hotel-water park.”
Johnson believes it’s impossible for the Bristol area to get these developments anywhere else.
But if the current version of casino legislation is passed, a Pinnacle casino also simply isn’t possible.
Gaming legalization now on the table in the Virginia General Assembly would allow only five economically-distressed localities to be able to open casinos. Bristol is one of them. This is a major advantage for Johnson’s competitors, the developers of the proposed Hard Rock Casino at the former Bristol Mall.
The proposed Pinnacle casino would be in Washington County, outside Bristol City limits. For the Pinnacle site even to be possible, current proposed legislation would need to be amended to allow for a competitive bidding process that would open the door to jurisdictions beyond the current five of Richmond, Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, and Norfolk.
Gaming legislation did advance out of the House and Senate on Tuesday. It’s still a waiting game to see if the bill will be amended to include a competitive bidding process.
”All we’re asking is, that the state write the policy to allow competition so that any and all projects, across the whole state, are reviewed and vetted,” said Johnson.
A study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission also recommends Virginia use a competitive selection process. The study says this would “maximize the financial and economic value of casino licenses and minimize risks to the state, localities, and public.”
“Those who don’t want competition, you’ve got to ask, why is that?” Johnson said.
The Pinnacle developer is advocating for a revenue-sharing policy between Washington County and Bristol.
“At some point, somebody’s got to do the math. The size and scope of this project, and the potential for revenue share, in this case from Washington County back to Bristol, Virginia could be more significant than vice versa.”
Johnson called his development a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
“Our ask to the General Assembly is to simply get it right, and open this up to be a competitive process as it should be. So that at the end of the day, the state of Virginia has the best result, and specifically this region has the best result,” he said.