BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL)- Before a Hard Rock casino can open at the site of the former Bristol Mall, the Virginia Lottery has to move through several steps as they set the rules for gaming in the Commonwealth. This follows voters overwhelmingly supporting casino gaming during a city-wide referendum in November.
Virginia Lottery Executive Director Kevin Hall described the complex process of drafting gaming regulations in an interview with News Channel 11 on Monday.
“It’s kind of like building the airplane while you’re flying it,” said Hall.
Attorneys are currently converting gaming legislation passed by Virginia lawmakers into regulations for how the application and licensing process will work for casino operators, as well as rules for gaming itself and the security it requires. Hall said they are able to borrow the best practices held by other states where casino gaming is already established.
They have until April 2021 to complete that step. Then the Virginia Lottery can start accepting applications from casino operators. Hard Rock is already approved as Bristol’s. But the background check process for these operators can take up to a year.
“It’s an in-depth investigation and it should be. That’s how you reassure the public that the gaming is being conducted with integrity and with appropriate oversight,” said Hall.
It’s not just the casino operator and key managers receiving background checks, Hall explained. Companies serving as suppliers for casino elements like slot machines, chips, cards, and dice also must be investigated. Employees must be checked too.
“Every employee in a casino that has access to the gaming floor also has to be fingerprinted and background-checked to make sure they have the highest character,” he said.
Because the investigation process is lengthy, Hall said they may not be able to issue licenses to operators until spring 2022.
“It would appear to me that spring-summer of 2022 probably would be the earliest opportunity,” said Hall.
This could cause delays for the temporary casino Hard Rock plans to open in the mall’s former Belk store. Hard Rock officials previously said they were aiming to open the temporary facility, complete with gaming and food options, in the second half of 2021.
During an informational event for Bristol community members in October 2020, Hard Rock Chief Operating Officer Jon Lucas spoke about plans for the temporary casino.
“We would hope that this time next year, we’ll have this facility right here up and running and open to the public,” Lucas said.
Hall said a temporary casino must follow the same regulations as a regular casino, and couldn’t open until licenses are issued.
“We understand the enthusiasm of many of the folks in Bristol. I think the fall of 2021 might be ambitious. I think it would be very challenging on that timeline,” said Hall.
News Channel 11 reached out to Hard Rock Bristol developers on Monday regarding the project’s timeline. A spokesperson for the project issued the following statement:
“We are monitoring the Lottery’s process and timeline for reviewing applications and issuing permits to conduct gaming. We remain committed to opening a temporary gaming facility as soon as possible. This is important to start bringing new jobs to Bristol and the region and begin generating additional state and local tax revenue. We remain optimistic for plans to open the resort by the end of 2022. We will work closely with the Lottery to satisfy all of the licensing requirements in a timely manner. The temporary casino will operate while the renovation and build-out of the Mall takes place. We are continuing to evaluate the Mall site and plan for the renovation and build-out work that needs to take place.”
Hall said the experience of established operators like Hard Rock can increase the efficiency of the application and licensing process.
Once all regulatory, application, background check, and licensing steps are completed, Hall believes there shouldn’t be any other steps for casino operators.
Hard Rock aims to open its main facility in late 2022.
“Virginia will take the time it needs to launch casino gaming in a responsible and a proper way,” Hall said.