Now that the referendum’s over, tribal officials look ahead.
NORFOLK – Anytime something new comes to town, there’s bound to be folks on both sides of the fence. That’s what happened in the Norfolk area when talk of a casino whispered throughout the city two years ago.
“I think any time there’s something new, there’s people who have fear of the unknown or fear of change, and we saw a little bit of that,” said Jay Smith, a partner at Capital Results. The group handles media relations for the Pamunkey Tribe.
While some people expressed concerns about potential gambling addictions, the Election Day vote proved that more people saw the benefits of a casino in the area. Approximately two-thirds of registered voters filled out their ballot in favor of the new opportunity.
“It was widespread across the city. It wasn’t one side of the city versus another,” Smith said. “I think we won something like 45 out of the 48 precincts.”
The city’s support will likely bring a windfall to the Norfolk area, as well as to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which will own and operate the casino.
Casinos in Virginia
On the statewide level, experts projected casinos will bring in $50 million every year for Virginia public schools. That’s part of a new gaming tax that benefits schools across the commonwealth.
For the City of Norfolk alone, there are tens of millions of dollars on the table.
“It’s estimated between $30 and $40 million every year for the city to use for their schools, public safety, whatever priorities they want,” Smith said. “We conservatively estimated $30 million and the city did their own economic analysis and projected around $40 million a year in revenue for the city that will be generated from it.”
The partner noted that especially with the downturn in the economy over the past eight months, localities looked for new revenue. He noted that the casino could be a way for Norfolk to bounce back financially.
Also, funds from the casino will flow into Virginia’s Problem Gaming Treatment and Support Fund.
“Money from the casinos across the state will go to that fund to make sure that those who may have that as an issue, that can be addressed,” Smith said.
The new casino looks to hire 2,500 employees through an initiative called the Casino Minority Outreach and Hiring Plan. The plan focuses on hiring a local, yet diverse workforce.
“I think that what sets this project apart is the actual operator. The Tribe themselves is a minority group who has been left out of opportunities in the past. So as they look at this as an opportunity to improve the Tribe, you know, a new revenue stream for the Tribe, and also to improve the city, Norfolk, they wanted to make sure that the workforce reflected the community,” Smith said. “And so they have committed to hiring 90% of their workforce from Norfolk or the surrounding localities adjacent to Norfolk. Part of that, also, because they wanted to reflect the community, they have committed to hiring 50% of their workforce from minority communities.”
However, the tribe isn’t passing out jobs to locals like free pizza samples. The operators look to hire reliable, dedicated workers.
“Now, that’s not just going to happen by itself. We’re going to have to work hard and we’re going to not only have to provide a job opportunity, but before we even open, we’re going to have to do job training,” Smith said. “We want people to be set up for success. We don’t just want to have job offers – we want to make sure that people have the skills to successfully apply and succeed in those positions.”
Working with nonprofit workforce development organizations, local universities and community colleges, the casino will put a program together over the next year. The program will focus on readying the workforce for jobs in the casino’s restaurant and departments like housekeeping, hotel management, hospitality, internet security, accounting, marketing and information technology.
“We want to make sure that all of those skill sets, that people have those skill sets needed to succeed in those positions,” Smith said. “Our workforce will look like the community, from the staff that you see in the restaurant to the staff you see in the executive suites – we want to make sure they’re filled with people that look like the community.”
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe
Owning and operating the casino also brings the promise of an economic boost to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.
“There will be, even after they pay their taxes and all those types of things, they will still have a profit, and that profit will go to the tribe,” Smith said.
There’s already a few ideas in place on how to best spend some of the money, even though the first dime won’t appear for a couple of years.
“They’re trying to improve access to healthcare, job opportunities, educational opportunities for the members of their Tribe, and to create revenue for the long-term success of their tribe,” Smith said. “Their reservation doesn’t even have high-speed internet. I can’t do a Zoom call with the chief because of the lack of basic internet infrastructure there. So things like that, that they would like to do to provide better opportunities and ensure the long-term success of the tribe, will happen from revenues produced by the casino as well. So it’s a win for the tribe, but it’s also a win for the city. You know, those are the two sides of it.”
The casino’s exact opening date is still in question. Smith noted however that progress is underway.
“We are currently starting our architectural designs and beginning the permitting process,” Smith said. “We hope to break ground in the spring of 2021, so just several months away, with our goal of a completion date and opening by the end of 2022.”
As the plans become more concrete, excitement buzzes in the Norfolk area.
“I think what the tribe is most hopeful for, is that this will truly be something that can be a catalyst for Norfolk and that area. The site that they’re building is a vacant, abandoned site along the Elizabeth River. It’s something that the city has wanted to develop, it just hasn’t had the right project,” Smith said. “And so we’re hopeful that not only – we know that we’re going to build a beautiful facility there – but our hope is that it will encourage other economic development and other growth around it.”
A vision becoming reality
On paper, it appears that the new casino could bring opportunities galore to both the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and the Norfolk area as a whole.
“One of the reasons that local businesses in the area were excited about this project is because they know that if we’re bringing in 6 million visitors every year, that more people will be coming to Norfolk. They’re going to bring their family and they’re going to spend some time at the casino, but at night, they may take their kids out to go get ice cream downtown or check out the beaches of Norfolk. They’re going to enjoy the other restaurants that are in town. It’s going to bring more economic activity,” Smith said. “So this is really an economic catalyst, not just for our project, but for the businesses in Norfolk. I think that’s what people, 10 years from now, [when they] look back at how it has changed, they’re going to see what it has done in terms of economic development in Norfolk.”
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]