BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) — “We’ll get back to where we need to be.”
It is a message of hope and optimism as the City of Bristol, Virginia takes part in the state’s phased-in approach of reopening the economy.
On Friday, Bristol was able to join other communities by taking part in “Phase One,” a plan laid out by Governor Ralph Northam to reopen businesses and organizations across the Commonwealth.
Mayor Neal Osborne joined Ashley Sharp live via Skype on Sunday to talk about how the phased-in reopening is going in in Bristol.
Osborne mentioned the city was able to close off Piedmont Street to allow businesses like the Burger Bar and Quaker Steak and Lube to offer outdoor dining opportunities.
Under the current guidance offered by the state, restaurants can not offer dine-in services yet, but can offer outdoor dining at 50 percent capacity and with social distancing.
Osborne mentioned that he was able to visit the dining area on Saturday, while City Council member Anthony Farnum was in attendance on Friday.
“We really saw a lot of people, and a lot of positive responses,” Osborne said. “People were happy to get out of their house, staying safe, and see some sense of normalcy.”
It is a unique situation for the Twin Cities of Bristol.
Bristol is broken up into two cities, one in Virginia and one in Tennessee while sharing a border. As Virginia had to wait to reopen some businesses, Bristol, Tenn., was able to get an early start under Tennessee’s separate phased-in approach to reopen the economy.
“Economically, we are one community,” Osborne said. “We do have a state line that separates us and our cities are different, and in a different place financially.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Osborne said early on both cities decided to work together to ensure safety for all residents and that he made it a priority to stay in contact with Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Margaret Feierabend.
“Our two city managers speak regularly about what’s going on, on each side of the state,” Osborne said. “Even though we have a state line separating us, it is important for us to have a general plan for social distancing, how to stay safe, and we do keep in constant contact about what’s also happening outside our jurisdictions.”
Moving forward, Osborne said he believes the city will see a negative impact economically with the Food City 500 coming back to Bristol Motor Speedway at the end of the month. That’s because NASCAR announced they’ll hold their races without fans inside the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.
“One of the big sources of tax revenue for Bristol is tourism and the races each year are a big piece of that,” Osborne said. “A lot of our tax revenue comes from lodging and meals tax. So we will see a negative impact, I believe, in those two tax sources without fans here. It will be difficult to work through that but hopefully by our fall race we’ll be able to have fans here again and have them come to Bristol and enjoy what we have to offer.”
One way Bristol could see some tax revenue is with a possible new casino. The General Assembly gave the city an OK to hold a local referendum, allowing voters to decide if a casino will set up shop at the old Bristol Mall location.
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“The casino project will have tremendous impact on the economy for Bristol, Virginia not only on our city specifically, but on the surrounding localities,” Osborne said. “We’ve seen estimates that say in meals tax and lodging tax and the associated tax revenues from that, we could see as much a $12 to $15 million influx of new money. The important thing with those kind of taxes … this is money that is not being paid by our residents. This is paid by people from the outside.”
The mayor said more benefits could be felt from the job creation at the casino.
Osborne added the average salary for an employee working at the casino is in the mid-$40,000 range, well above the household income average in Bristol, Va.
A public hearing on the project is set for Tuesday and the referendum is set for the November election.
And while times continue to be tough amid the coronavirus pandemic, Osborne shared optimism that the Bristol community will be able to rebound in time.
It all comes from hard work from community members, like the local Chamber of Commerce raising more than $100,000 for small businesses.
“That’s just an example of what we do as a region,” he said. “Working together and being able to take care of one another. We’ll get through this. Times have been tough, they might continue to be tough, but they’re getting better.”