RICHMOND, Va. (WJHL)- The findings of a study released Monday could impact a proposal to turn the old Bristol Mall into a casino and resort.

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Last January, the Virginia General Assembly asked the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, a nonpartisan organization, to conduct a comprehensive study on how legalizing casino gambling would affect the Commonwealth. The vote came after lawmakers decided to hold off on allowing five “economically distressed” areas to move forward with local referendums.

The report’s findings are expected to influence lawmakers who will decide whether or not to expand gaming when they return to Richmond this winter.

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The study concluded that casinos in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond are projected to generate about $970 million in net gaming revenue and approximately $260 million in gaming tax revenue for the state. These numbers are based on a tax rate of 27% and an initial capital investment of $200-$300 million.

The report says out-of-state visitors are expected to generate about one-third of total casino revenue. Bristol and Danville stand to benefit more than other localities from this group but a project in neighboring Tennessee or North Carolina could offset some of that success, according to the report.

“If you’re first out of the gate and you build a brand people are more likely to stick with you in the long run no matter what opens up elsewhere,” said Bristol, Virginia City Manager Randall Eads when asked if this finding concerned him.

The report projected job creation across the state at about 76 hundred, with 1,067 of those jobs in Bristol. That’s much less than the 52 hundred over a seven-year period estimated by Bristol developers.

The report said nearly half the jobs would be low-skill and low-wage but many would require higher levels of skill. It estimated the median wage at $33 thousand.

Bristol Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Beth Rhinehart said the study overestimated the city’s population while underestimating the job count and average wage.

She said, “The salary that was given in the report today was far less than what the industry standards show from real research data from very reputable organizations so the actual number is about double what our per capita income is here.”

The report also addressed social impacts. It said more people would at least be at risk of gambling addiction with expanded gaming, though research doesn’t consistently show an increase after a casino is introduced.

The commission described current treatment and prevention resources in the state as minimal.

“I do think more money at the state level needs to be put in to address that. It’s a high risk, high reward thing,” said Bristol, Virginia Mayor Neal Osborne.

The report recommended a stable funding source to counter problem gambling be established before casinos are stood up.

It also emphasized that oversight of expanded gaming would be a major undertaking for the state, requiring new staff and infrastructure estimated to cost at least $16 million annually.

Several legislative recommendations were listed in the report, including:

  • Applicants should submit a “responsible gaming plan” and casino operators should be accredited
  • Casino licenses should be awarded through a competitive process overseen by a committee with diverse professional backgrounds
  • An independent consultant should assess the accuracy and feasibility of proposals
  • Owners and officers of any company looking to open a casino should have to pass an in-depth background check and financial investigation

In part due to this extensive process, the report said it would likely take four years after passing authorizing legislation to open casinos.

“We already have the funder in place, we already have an announced partner in Hard Rock Cafe,” Rhinehart said. “If you look at those steps that other communities have not reached yet I think we are way sooner than four years in my opinion.”

The developers of the Bristol Resort & Casino sent News Channel 11 the following statement:

“With the Bristol Resort & Casino, our goal from the beginning has been to create a major economic development project to benefit the residents and communities in a region of the Commonwealth that is desperately in need of new jobs and additional tax revenue.  Now that the report is complete and the legislature has the benefit of JLARC’s recommendations, we look forward to the 2020 General Assembly Session and the final passage of legislation that will mean thousands of good jobs for the citizens of our region and critical revenue for localities in need of new resources.”

Andy Poarch, Bristol Resort & Casino Spokesperson

Sen.-elect Todd Pillion (R-Bristol) also issued a statement:

I appreciate JLARC for their thoughtful approach to this study and look forward to reviewing the specific details of their report. As intended from the beginning, this decision will ultimately come down to the voters, who can weigh the information from this report and details announced by the developers and their partners. That’s the best part about this–local people making local decisions based on an open process.

Sen.-elect Todd Pillion (R-Bristol)

You can read the full report here.