Norfolk, Portsmouth Up the Ante for the First Casino in the Commonwealth

It was recently announced that the Pamunkey Indian Tribe had plans to build a casino near Harbor Park in Norfolk. The casino, which would be the first in Virginia, would feature gaming, restaurants, spa, and a hotel.

Across the Elizabeth River on Tuesday, Portsmouth officials unveiled plans for a casino of their own roughly two miles away from the Pamunkey Tribe’s proposed location. The result? Two bills have now been filed in the General Assembly by legislators working to get one or the other approved.

Delegate Barry Knight, a Republican from Virginia Beach, is sponsoring a bill which would ensure that the Pamunkey could set up shop in Norfolk without competition from across the water. The proposed legislation would allow for only Indian casinos to be built, and those would be limited to cities with 200,000 residents or more. Coincidentally, Portsmouth’s population is approximately 95,000.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Louise Lucas of Portsmouth is pushing a bill that would amend Virginia’s gaming laws so that cities that meet certain unemployment and poverty thresholds can hold referendums on whether or not to approve the construction of casinos in an effort to improve their local economy.

Delegate Knight and others have expressed concerns about the rival casinos cannibalizing each other.

Having grown up about an hour from Atlantic City and watching those casinos dropping like flies over the years, after practically being built on top of one another, I would agree that this could be an issue.

On the other hand, Atlantic City was packed with commercial casinos like Harrah’s, Caesar’s, and even (you guessed it) the now defunct Trump Plaza.

Indian casinos, however, aren’t always full of tables for poker, blackjack, and craps. As the Virginian Pilot article points out, some are what’s known as Class 2, which would feature mostly slot machines and video poker. We could see two different sorts of casinos going up if that’s the case, and it’s tough to know for certain how one would affect the other if that happened.

Regardless of the outcome in Richmond, a casino in Portsmouth or Norfolk will still be several years off. An Indian casino would have to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other red tape before construction could begin.

A commercial casino in Portsmouth, if Senator Lucas’ bill becomes law this session, and the residents there vote in favor of a referendum later this year, could be up and running in a year or two.

From a practical standpoint, Norfolk is in a better position to support such a project than Portsmouth. A casino/resort next door to Harbor Park, home of the Baltimore Orioles Triple-A affiliate Norfolk Tides, and near other downtown attractions in Norfolk makes sense on paper.

Portsmouth, which is home to many attractive historic buildings on the water, simply faces more obstacles than Norfolk in terms of feasibility even just from a transportation and infrastructure standpoint. Potential customers from nearby Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and other cities in Hampton Roads would have to pay a toll going to and from Portsmouth through an often backed up tunnel that connects to Norfolk anyway.

Honestly, I’m just surprised Virginia Beach hasn’t gotten in on the action yet.

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