‘VOTE NO’: Coalition of churches running campaign against Bristol, Virginia casino referendum

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BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – A coalition of churches in Bristol, Virginia have started a campaign against the casino proposal which appears on the ballot as a referendum this election.

With Election Day merely a few weeks away, News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais spoke with the leaders of the coalition of churches who are against casino gambling in the Twin Cities.

One step the group took was to place eight billboards throughout the City of Bristol, aiming to dissuade citizens from voting “yes” on the casino referendum.

“This is the effort of a number of churches who have given financially to support the billboard effort in hopes of encouraging people to vote not,” Fellowship Chapel Pastor Scott Price said. “The proponents are getting their message out, and they’re doing a good job, they have the resources to do that, and they believe very strongly in their cause, we believe very strongly in our cause.”

The Fellowship Chapel assumed a leadership role in the campaign for citizens to “VOTE NO,” which spread not only to yard signs and billboards, but also a website.

“The website is basically an information site that we put up, along with the help of other churches, who’ve been supportive to inform people,” Price added.

The coalition’s main goal is to get the message across that a casino would be the root of a multitude of problems, should the referendum pass. A point the developers and operators of the proposed Bristol Hard Rock Casino and Resort, oppose.

“The proponents are getting their message out, and they’re doing a good job, they have the resources to do that, and they believe very strongly in their cause, we believe very strongly in our cause,” Price told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais. “The proponents are certainly advocating the positives with regard to jobs and tourism and revenue, and no doubt there will be an initial boost to the economy should it come – anything new – but over the long term, we believe because it’s an industry built on vice, it’s not going to produce real wealth, a casino doesn’t. It’s the exchange of money from one hand to another’s hand, and most often it’s from the people who can’t afford it exchanging their money into the hands of the owners and the operators who are the wealthy ones behind it. We believe for a number of moral reasons, social reasons, economic reasons, it’s going to be a terrible thing for Bristol.”

Officials with Hard Rock have been campaigning for the citizens to vote “yes” on the referendum for months, promising millions in tax revenue to go back into the community, as well as good-paying jobs.

“The positive that they’re touting of how it’s going to help local businesses, we believe it’s going to hurt local businesses because the majority of patrons of any regional casino, are local folks who make between $25,000-$35,000 a year, who really can’t afford to throw away money in a slot machine,” Price added.

Officials with the casino development shared the following statement with News Channel 11:

“If we truly want to look out for the well-being of Bristol’s citizens, then they need jobs and hope for a bright economic future.  We cannot afford to turn our backs on local residents and not give them an opportunity to provide for their families. This project will provide thousands of new jobs to help those in Bristol, and across the entire region, start careers.  With millions of dollars in additional annual tax revenue for Bristol, the City can fund those vital services on which our residents rely to support critical needs.”

Bristol Hard Rock Casino and Resort

Price said that the group of churches are not against jobs coming into the community, just the casino.

“Well, we’re certainly for revenue coming to town, we’re all for our schools. We are for tourism, we are for jobs, but we just believe a casino, which is an industry built on vice, on sin, is going to ultimately destroy everything it touches.”

Dewey Williams, Senior Pastor at Belle Meadows Baptist Church has been part of the campaign against a casino coming to Bristol, Virginia for the past two years, since it was originally announced.

He told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that the billboards and website is the final push to get their anti-casino message across to the voters, as the pandemic has hindered many of their other opportunities.

“I think we could have done better. The COVID-19 changes some of your strategy that we could have maybe done some door-to-door work and things that way,” Williams said.

He said that the church coalition were like the David to Hard Rock’s Goliath, since the church group has had to rely on donations. He also said that he was worried that community members are so eager to have the jobs potentially being offered by the casino, that if the measure fails, he fears they would blame the churches.

“I believe that the people in our community so believe that this is the answer for everything, that if we could somehow stop it, I think then they would blame the churches from there on out for anything that happens, and the preachers that stood against it,” Williams added. “It’s almost like making a deal with the devil, and when you do that, you never come out.”

Criminal activity and addiction are the biggest concerns church leaders have for their congregations, should the referendum pass, but they told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that if community members pray about it, they will know how to vote once they cast their ballots this election.

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