Norfolk is one of five cities in Virginia allowed to authorize a commercial casino development. But more than two years later — after residents in the Hampton Roads locale voted in favor of a $500 million casino pitch from the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and tribal gaming billionaire Jon Yarbrough — little work has been done at the project site.
The tribe and Yarbrough have partnered on a development called HeadWaters Resort & Casino. The waterfront hotel property on the Elizabeth River received 65% of the nearly 89,000 votes cast on the local referendum question asked during the November 2020 election.
Virginia’s gaming law allows approved casino projects to open a temporary casino space amid the construction of the permanent resort. But in Norfolk, no provisional gaming venue has even begun to be constructed, nor has any work started on the permanent HeadWaters.
Temporary Casino Plan Caused Setbacks
Speaking with WAVY-TV this week, Norfolk City Manager Chip Filer explained what is most responsible for the Norfolk casino missteps.
While Hard Rock Bristol opened a temporary casino inside the former Bristol Mall in July, and Rivers Casino Portsmouth plans to open its permanent casino in a little more than two weeks on Jan. 15, the future home of HeadWaters remains a barren parking lot.
HeadWaters has been approved to be built on 13 acres of land between the Harbor Park minor league baseball stadium and the Norfolk Southern Railroad line on the banks of the Elizabeth.
I think we all wish this was a situation where we had a big open field and could start building our casino,” Filer said. “[But the] site is pretty challenging.”
HeadWaters officials initially planned to open a temporary casino inside Harbor Park in what was formerly a restaurant and gym. But after legal concerns were raised, specifically that Virginia’s 2020 commercial gaming bill only allows the creation of an interim casino at the same physical address as where the permanent casino will operate, the developers scrapped those plans.
The tribe later announced that a temporary casino would be built on the parking lot where HeadWaters will one day stand. The provisional gaming structure will be located at 200 Park Avenue — the same address as the future casino. Harbor Park is located at 150 Park Ave.
The location change, Filer explained, caused construction setbacks, as the developers needed to reconfigure how they would build the permanent structure on the same grounds as where the interim casino is to be erected.
“[It’s] created a host of problems, from where the laydown will go, to how you’ll build the temporary casino and start construction of the permanent casino at the same time,” Filer added.
$100K Yearly Maintenance Fee
Prior to the 2020 referendum, the Norfolk City Council deemed the Pamunkey-Yarbrough partnership as its preferred casino developer. The contract is valid for five years. But the HeadWaters team must pay the city $100,000 a year to maintain the casino development rights until the resort is built.
The tribe has also not yet received a state-issued gaming license. That will only come once HeadWaters’ temporary casino is constructed. Plans for the venue were recently submitted to the city. Planning for the permanent casino resort remains ongoing.
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