Gambling casinos, African art museum, surf park, in spotlight

January 22, 2019


Is Hampton Roads one big region? Or, is it simply a collection of cities? It’s both, only the cities are separated by bridges, waterways, roads and rail tracks and it’s been like that for a long time.


Every year, every local city adds some new businesses to its tax rolls. The bigger the business, the more money for city coffers. The cities try to act like they’re really not aggressively marketing against each other, as they compete for new businesses. And they don’t really like to admit that in many cases, where larger businesses are involved, financial incentives, and other allurements, are necessary to attract and land some of the bigger names.


So, year after year, local businesses come and go, and no one seems to notice all that much, unless it sparks the interest of the local, mainstream media.


Going into 2019, three Hampton Roads cities have already gained big headlines: In Virginia Beach, efforts are well underway to bring a new entertainment, sports, retail and housing complex, called Atlantic Park, to where the Virginia Beach Dome used to sit. In Norfolk and Portsmouth, efforts are getting underway to try to build a gambling casino in one of the riverside cities. Plus, Norfolk is also looking at an African cultural center and hotel, on the water, in the downtown area.


For far too long, Norfolk and Portsmouth have taken a back seat to Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, when it comes to economic development. It’s kind of understandable, given that Norfolk’s and Portsmouth’s combined population doesn’t equal that of Virginia Beach’s.


And where the people are, is where there’s likely to be public and private investment, along with, constant, mainstream media attention, which is sometimes necessary for many businesses to survive. Here is a closer look at some of the information pertaining to each of the initiatives.



Portsmouth's proposed casino information,

drawn from the city of Portsmouth 


Portsmouth Resorts LLC, a partnership with local developer John Lawson of W.M. Jordan, is working with the city of Portsmouth to build a mixed-use project. The proposed project includes the building of a casino, residential, a resort hotel and parking deck.


Sitting on prime waterfront real estate, the former Holiday Inn was a Portsmouth icon for more than 40 years. The demolition of the hotel in 2009 provided unlimited possibilities for the city to capitalize on the property, located at 8 Crawford Parkway. After several studies, conducted by consultants, the City Council, with public input, ratified the Crawford Gateway Strategic Plan. Senate Bill SB1126, sponsored by chief patron, Senator L. Louise Lucas, when ratified, creates the Virginia Casino Gaming Commission as the licensing body for casino gaming.


The bill specifies the licensing requirements for casino gaming and imposes penalties for violations of the casino gambling law — additionally, the bill establishes the Gambling Treatment Support Fund, administered by the Commissioner of Behavioral Health and Development Services, to assist problem gamblers. SB90 contains additional stipulations on how the proceeds will be reallocated. Visit for the bill’s full text.


The Crawford Bay site is situated on six acres along the Portsmouth waterfront, at Mile Marker Zero on the Intracoastal Waterway. Additionally, the development site includes the Portsmouth Visitors Center, the Portside property and the Harbor Tower Parking Garage.


The area now has an eclectic mix of architecture along the waterfront, offering views of the Elizabeth River and access to historic downtown Portsmouth.


At full capacity, the annual total economic impact of the resort (direct, indirect and induced) can amount to $1.1 billion that can support 6,578 jobs in the city of Portsmouth.


The total economic impacts are estimated to be $1.8 billion in spending that can support 12,614 jobs in the Hampton Roads MSA, and $2.1 billion in spending that can support 13,962 jobs in Virginia.


The proposed Portsmouth resort can contribute an estimated $105.3 million in tax revenue for the state and local governments. Of this figure, $31.4 million is the estimated tax revenue for the city of Portsmouth; $20.7 million for other Hampton Roads governments, and $53.2 million for the state government. 


At full capacity, the annual total economic impact of the resort (direct, indirect, and induced) can amount to $1.1 billion that can support 6,578 jobs in the city of Portsmouth.



Norfolk's proposed casino information,

as recently reported by


"A casino war has begun.


"Portsmouth leaders came out swinging this week with their own plans to open a waterfront casino, rivaling plans by the Pamunkey Indians to build one in downtown Norfolk.


"Such proximity wouldn't be good for either casino's success.


"The battle lines have now been drawn in bills filed in the General Assembly.


"On one side, legislation to change state gambling laws to pave the way for a commercial casino in Portsmouth and other cities that meet certain poverty and unemployment criteria that Norfolk does not.


"On the other side, the Pamunkey have fired back with a bill that aims to block Portsmouth by restricting all future casino business to tribes like themselves and to locations within cities that have at least 200,000 residents.


"Portsmouth's population: 95,000.


"Facing off: Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach).


"What I'm saying is that Norfolk and Portsmouth can't coexist, and the Pamunkey have a right to build their casino in Norfolk," said Knight, who is sponsoring the Pamunkeys' bill.


"Until now, the Pamunkey Indians — armed with a special federal status — were the only people in Virginia with any shot at opening a casino. In December, Norfolk announced a partnership with the tribe and its plans to build a $700 million casino, resort and spa next to Harbor Park on the Elizabeth River.


"On Tuesday, Portsmouth leaders held a press conference on their own waterfront parcel, outlining plans for their own $700 million casino, hotel and conference center — less than two miles across the river from the Norfolk site.


"Lucas has long tried to get commercial gambling approved for Portsmouth. This year, the city has aligned with Danville and Bristol to convince legislators to allow economically challenged cities like themselves to hold referendums, letting residents decide for themselves if they want casino gambling.


"Let this be our Amazon," Lucas said during a Monday news conference in Richmond.


"Of bringing commercial casinos to Virginia, Lucas said: "It is rare to see a cause that can unite people across party lines and reasonable boundaries, especially in such a politically divided environment." 


"Knight wants Portsmouth removed from Lucas' legislation so only Danville and Bristol remain. He said Portsmouth would wind up benefiting from his proposal because the whole region would share in the profits, though his bill doesn't say specifically how.


"One way or another, Knight said, casinos are coming to the commonwealth.


"We are going to have casino gambling in Virginia," he said."


Q&A: Virginia's casino wars, 



Q. What's the likelihood of casinos coming to both Portsmouth and Norfolk?


A: At this point, that's anyone's guess. The general consensus is that two casinos that close together in Hampton Roads would cannibalize each other's customers.  


And each still has plenty of hoops to jump through. On the Pamunkey side, the tribe has to get the Norfolk land into a federal trust and approved for gaming, a typically laborious process. As for Portsmouth, Sen. Lucas' bill appears to have bipartisan support from across the state, which means it may have a shot at getting through the legislature. But it could also hit a snag when it reaches Gov. Ralph Northam's desk.


Despite saying in March that Virginia should be "open-minded" to casino-style gambling, Northam recently proposed a gambling study which could put the brakes on the issue for this year. If funding for the study is approved, the results would be due in November.


Q. Which is more lucrative for a community — tribal or commercial casinos?


A: It depends on a few things. First: The type of tribal gambling allowed, class 2 or 3.


Class 2 — mostly a type of slot machine — typically has less draw and rarely requires revenue be shared with localities or the state. Class 3, like a full-fledged Vegas-style casino, would require state approval and likely revenue sharing. At Connecticut's class 3 casinos, for example, 25 percent of tribal gambling revenue goes back to the state, said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. So far in Virginia, the bills proposed on both sides call for a 10-percent tax. Schwartz said that's on the low-to-middle end of what other states have levied. 


Q. How quickly could either be opened?


A: Neither effort will allow a casino to pop up overnight. If the Portsmouth-friendly bill passes the General Assembly and is signed by the governor, it wouldn't take effect until July 1, with referendums likely held in November. Then Portsmouth could break ground, but it would still probably take a year or two for doors to open.


The tribal route traditionally takes longer — as much as a decade through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But Knight thinks it could happen in Norfolk in three years, which he called "warp speed." 


Q. Why is there so much gambling talk in Virginia right now?


A: It used to be that Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the only options for gamblers in the U.S. But since the 1980s, when a process for tribal gaming was approved, and more recently, in the last decade, as "gambling" has become "gaming" and the practice has become less taboo, both tribal and commercial casinos have spread across the country.


Virginia is one of only 10 states that still don't have any type of casino. Even neighboring North Carolina and Maryland have some, including MGM National Harbor, a flashy resort built by a Vegas casino owner, that opened just across the state line in December 2016.


"I think (Virginia sees) what has happened in Maryland where you've had expansion in gaming there," said Schwartz with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That same year, Virginia was one of the first states to craft a law regulating fantasy sports contests. More recently, the Supreme Court overturned a federal ban on sports betting, causing many state legislatures to begin drafting laws to regulate it in their own states, including Virginia."



Information on a proposed African art museum in Norfolk,

as reported by


"A local organization says it aims to "transform the Waterside District" and make Hampton Roads an international destination with a nearly $200 million African art museum and 26-story hotel next to Harbor Park.


"The Foundation for the Advancement of African Descendants sent what it called an "unsolicited conceptual proposal" to city officials this week. 


"In a news release, the foundation says the project is "unlike any other museum in the world and will bring artifacts that are over one million years old to our region."


"It lays out a plan for the city-owned site, currently used as parking, between the Berkley Bridge and Harbor Park along the Norfolk waterfront. A long list of what it would entail includes 26,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 26-story hotel, 4,000 square feet of library and research space, a large theater and music gallery, a grand foyer and banquet area, classrooms, a tourist office, gift shops and "advanced green energy technology."


"Mayor Kenny Alexander said he'd heard of the idea when he was campaigning, but the first official contact from the group since he took office came this week.


"Anybody who's interested in my city, we'll explore it, we'll learn more about it," Alexander said. "An international museum in Norfolk makes sense."


"Richard James, listed as the foundation's secretary and board member, did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment Wednesday morning. A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.


"Art and artifacts should not be put on shelves and hidden in closets. The elements of our rich culture are for people to enjoy, study and to learn about what came before us," James said in the news release. "The 13 countries involved in the project are eager to share their art and artifacts with us."


"It's unclear where the foundation would get its funding, which it estimates as around $90 million for the museum and more than $100 million for the hotel. The proposal lists a combination of "Countries in Africa, Major Philanthropy Donors, The National Endowment for the Arts, the United Nations (WTO) and private contributors."


"In federal tax filings, the foundation listed $2,000 in assets in 2016 and has not filed paperwork since, according to GuideStar, which tracks nonprofit organizations' financial information. The group's website shows a donation campaign for the museum that hasn't yet raised any money.


"Before city officials can truly consider the development, spokeswoman Lori Crouch said, they need to work through another proposal for land nearby — a $700 million casino. 


"The Pamunkey Indian Tribe recently announced it's in negotiations with the city to purchase land on the other side of the baseball stadium to build a casino, which could also include condominiums on the site the African foundation proposes. Mayor Alexander has said the tribe's planned casino "validates Norfolk as an emerging destination for tourism in the mid-Atlantic."


"Both proposals include demands for infrastructure and transit — the museum planners, for example, request a new light rail stop at the site, parking and rerouted electrical utilities.


"We have to do (casino conversations) first before we can determine what another development would look like," Crouch said.


"The next step is for city staff to meet with the foundation to discuss the project. Before Monday, they hadn't heard about it in any detail.



Information on the proposed Atlantic Park, in Virginia Beach,

as recently reported by


"The City Council approved a non-binding term sheet on Tuesday for an entertainment attraction and surf park to be built at the Oceanfront, setting in motion an ambitious project that still faces other hurdles.


"Virginia Beach leaders have long envisioned developing two parking lots at 19th Street and Pacific Avenue that have sat idle for 25 years after an old civic center, the Dome, was torn down.


"Musician and city native Pharrell Williams said in a statement provided to The Virginian-Pilot after the vote that he has changed the name of the project from The Wave to Atlantic Park.


"A name that lives up to the potential I hope we are all starting to feel," he said. "Although a portion of this project is built with private investment, the land will remain in the ownership of the public."


"The $328 million concept, which originated from local surfer Alec Yuzhbabenko's college thesis, could be operational by 2023.


"Before the 9-1 vote, more than a dozen people spoke in support of the project at Tuesday’s meeting.


“Virginia Beach has the potential of being the epicenter for surfing on the East Coast,” said George Alcaraz, general manager of the East Coast Surfing Championships.


"A few people questioned the need for the project with flooding issues in the city and the timing of the vote on the same night as public comment.


“What’s the rush?,” asked resident Reid Greenmun.


"Venture Realty Group, with Pharrell Williams, pitched the idea more than a year ago. After months of exclusive dealings with Virginia Beach, which included an extension, the company and city struck a deal before the deadline on the last day of 2018.


"Now, the Venture team and city staff will hash out design details and construction costs. A development agreement could be completed by June at which time the City Council will vote again to officially get the project off the ground.


"It will be early 2020 before "the dirt will fly," Deputy City Manager Ron Williams has said.


"The project includes financial support from the city to the tune of $95.5 million in tourism taxes and an additional $5 million annually in incentives and a performance grant. The incentives hinge on support  from the state.


"Before it was demolished, the Alan B. Shepard Civic Center — named for the astronaut and Virginia Beach resident — was always known as the Dome for its geodesic, golf-ball-like shape. It had a storied life, hosting the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles and the Monkees.


"When it was torn down in 1994, it left a void in the heart of the resort area.


"Plans to redevelop it trickled in over the years and ranged from the Dixie Stampede, a dinner-theater operation with a Civil War-theme, to a South Korean company in 2006 that wanted to build futuristic towers to attract an Asian market. And, more recently, Peterson Cos., of Fairfax, had proposed shops and restaurants only to renege in 2016 after the Norfolk Premium Outlets opened, citing competition.


"City Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten said the project had the potential to keep young adults in the area.


"I believe this is a place where our young adults live, work and play," she said.


"City Councilman David Nygaard said the development was long overdue and could help with parking.


"It's a great time to rebuild the Dome," he said."

The project includes financial support from the city to the tune of $95.5 million in tourism taxes and an additional $5 million annually in incentives and a performance grant. The incentives hinge on support  from the state, reports (Photo courtesy of Venture Realty Group.)


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