3, 2, 1… Takeoff: Bristol’s “moon shot” ready to be launched | Latest titles
BY DAVID MCGEE BRISTOL HERALD COURIER
BRISTOL, Va. — When plans for a casino in Bristol’s former shopping center were made public in September 2018, project developer Jim McGlothlin called it “Bristol’s moonshot.”
At 2 p.m. today, Bristol Casino, Future Home of Hard Rock, opens its doors to the public for the first time. It will be the first operating casino in Virginia and a warm-up act for what is to come in May 2024 – the $400 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol.
Envisioning a way to reverse rising unemployment and poverty rates in one of Virginia’s most economically disadvantaged cities, the Bristol casino group – hailing from ultra-conservative southwestern Virginia – became unexpected allies with Democratic lawmakers in the coastal urban centers of Norfolk and Portsmouth. Together, they locked up the guns and pushed through previously unconscionable casino gambling legislation.
The effort required the move to two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly, countless committee meetings, extensive debate and review.
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In March 2020, lawmakers spat and the governor quickly signed a framework allowing five cities – Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond – to conduct referenda for citizens to choose whether a casino was right for their city.
Even before this vote, Hard Rock committed to opening a temporary casino to operate while the larger project was under development.
Four cities, led by Bristol with a 71% majority, approved plans put forward by their would-be operators in November 2020 – campaigns during the global pandemic and votes in what is probably the most contentious general election in history the United States.
At that time, the Virginia Lottery began drafting the regulations that casinos must follow and conducting the required criminal background checks of every entity and person involved in the construction and operation of casinos.
Seventy-three days ago, the Lottery Board officially approved Virginia’s first gaming operator license for Hard Rock Bristol. The past few months have been a whirlwind as Hard Rock staff around the world have converged to hire and train 600 people in what, for many, is a new career in a new industry.
Beth Rhinehart, president and chief executive of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, praised the efforts needed to reach that day.
“First and foremost, it’s a testament to the determination and commitment of the team behind this project to see it come to fruition,” Rhinehart said. “We are almost four years away from the start of the first conversations. It’s amazing with all the challenges and obstacles – some obvious and some unexpected along the way – that this community has come together to make this a success.
Some temporary casinos may be set up in tents or storage buildings, Rhinehart said, but that’s a far cry from what visitors will experience here.
“It’s the real deal,” she said. “For this to be the first in Virginia – and to think about how many years people have fought for gambling to be allowed in Virginia, that says a lot about our community and our region. That we did.
Because the casino is just off Interstate 81, 20 minutes from a regional airport, and is the only such entity within a 2.5 hour drive – with no others operating anywhere in Virginia, Tennessee or Kentucky – its potential is obvious.
Rhinehart said local hotels are already reporting an increase in bookings related to the casino’s opening.
Bristol, Va. Mayor Anthony Farnum, whose Spring 2020 campaign has largely focused on promoting casino voting and its positive attributes, considers this a landmark day for the city and region.
“I think this is the biggest economic development project in the history of Bristol, Virginia,” Farnum said. “Obviously I’m excited, but that’s an understatement. More people coming here will help our whole region. From a local government perspective, this will give us new growth and new tax revenue. We have a lot of needs in the city and we can direct that tax revenue to things like funding our school system and supporting our first responders. It gives us a boost to be able to do some of the things we need to do.
The Hard Rock facility in 2024 is expected to generate $130 million in annual gaming tax revenue, including $35 million for the state from 2-4 million annual visitors, which is comparable to the 3 million people that Dollywood brings to the Smoky Mountains every year.
No financial projections have been made for the temporary casino, but its impact is already being felt through the construction work to create the temporary facility and Hard Rock’s hiring and training of 600 workers.
“It’s really hard to predict the impact just because we have no idea how many people will come to visit the temporary casino,” City Manager Randy Eads said. “Are they going to spend the night in the city of Bristol or are they going to go home if they come from out of town?
“I really think it’s too early to make any predictions about what the temporary casino will bring us. I think as we go through this exercise, we can make predictions, based on what we see in our meal taxes and our accommodation tax,” Eads said.
“There will be income. There will be gaming tax revenue, dining tax revenue, and hopefully accommodation tax revenue. Obviously, 600 jobs is no mean feat and having 600 more people working in the city will be a big plus for the city. I hope many people in the city were able to take advantage of the opportunity to work there,” Eads said.
Creating new, well-paying jobs was one of the fundamental aspects of the casino’s original plan, so that box is already checked.
With 600 employees and another 100 awaiting training, Hard Rock is already one of Twin City’s largest employers. Its staffing is comparable to that of electromechanical manufacturers and its group, including Federal Pacific as the largest single employer in Bristol, Virginia. And is the third largest of the two Bristols, behind Ballad Health System and Sullivan County Schools, according to the Bristol Chamber of Commerce.
The casino will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
More than a temporary casino
If the Bristol Casino, future home of the Hard Rock, will serve as a temporary casino, it is much more.
Located in the old Belk building in the mall and extending to the ground floor of the mall, it will feature a 30,000 square foot gaming room featuring nearly 900 slot machines, 20 table games including baccarat, blackjack, craps, Mississippi stud, paigow, roulette, three card poker and ultimate Texas Hold’em, according to the Bristol Casino website.
Other features include a high-limit gaming area, non-smoking gaming area, full-service restaurant, sports bar with live entertainment and smoking/non-smoking options, sports betting and coin service. takeaway food and drink. There will also be a Rock Shop for anyone who wants to invest their winnings in Hard Rock t-shirts, apparel and collectibles.
Members of the Hard Rock team have been on the grounds since day one, developing the ambiance, ambiance and installing technology to provide visitors with a top-notch gaming and dining experience.
“I’ve been to a lot of casinos and worked in several. It’s as nice, if not nicer, than some places I’ve been and operated in before. And it’s temporary ownership,” Hard Rock Bristol chairman Allie Evangelista said last week. “I’m really proud of the work. The product we have here is really cool and I can’t wait to welcome the community.
Work is already underway to establish the fully developed Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Bristol, which is due to open in May 2024 and features 1,500 slot machines and 55 table games on 100,000 square feet of gaming space, Sportsbook, a 300-room luxury hotel and spa, with 350 rooms planned for a second phase.
It will also include a Hard Rock Café – also the first in Virginia – among approximately 15 food and drink options. Add to that a Hard Rock Live entertainment center with 2,000 indoor seats and a 20,000-seat outdoor space for live music in the birthplace of country music, as well as meeting and convention space. It should employ between 1,200 and 1,500 people.
The temporary casino will offer two dining options, including Mr. Lucky’s, a table-service restaurant offering contemporary regional cuisines using the freshest selections of beef, fresh seafood and an array of local ingredients. Its varied menu features pastas, homemade soups, steaks, seafood and chef’s specials, according to the Hard Rock Bristol website.
Starting July 8, Mr. Lucky’s will be open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight. From July 10, it will be open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and from 11 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday from July 15.
Brick’d is Hard Rock’s pizzeria that offers a quick-service Italian menu for a complete dining experience and a wide selection of take-out food. Some of them will be familiar to Tri-Cities residents, including donuts and pastries from Blackbird Bakery and fudge from Southern Churn, both based in Bristol, Virginia.