The federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians announced plans Tuesday to build a 350-acre casino resort in Southwest Virginia’s Washington County, just outside the city of Bristol, in partnership with Johnson Commercial Development.
The announcement came one day before the kickoff of the 2020 General Assembly session, when state lawmakers will take up proposals to legalize casinos and/or sports betting. The emergence of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), which already operates the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina, creates another competitor in what is already a crowded field of potential casino operators, including the proposed Hard Rock Bristol Resort and Casino.
In a news release, the tribe said its project — proposed to be built adjacent to The Pinnacle retail development — would include a 15,000-seat outdoor concert venue and a hotel with an indoor waterpark. The Pinnacle complex is on the Tennessee side of the state line, but the casino would be built on the Virginia side.
“I have visited the site along I-81 and I am impressed with its strategic, gateway location that serves a five-state area,” said EBCI Chief Richard Sneed, as reported by Virginia Mercury. “It is our wish to bring new tax revenue and jobs to Washington County and the Southwest Virginia region in a positive and impactful way.”
Steve Johnson, the developer behind the Pinnacle development, is also involved with the casino project. “We look forward to working with the [EBCI], local leaders, and elected officials in Richmond to bring this massive opportunity to fruition,” he said.
The location of the Cherokee project puts it in direct competition with the Hard Rock-branded casino project a group of Southwest Virginia businessmen want to build in the old Bristol Mall. The two sites are so close together that the mall building shows up on an overhead map of the Cherokee project.
Legislation approved in 2019 named Bristol and four other Virginia cities as potential sites for gaming casinos, but the act must be reauthorized by the General Assembly this year. Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond are the only localities named in House Bill 374 and its companion, Senate Bill 102, meaning the county site has no standing. All casinos would also be dependent on approval by local voter referenda.
With nearly a half-dozen possible casino projects in the pipeline, a state gambling study completed last November by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) recommended awarding casino licenses through a competitive process, if lawmakers choose to allow them.
Though sovereign Indian tribes have more power to build casinos with or without a state government’s blessing, the Cherokee project would operate under normal commercial rules. Tribal casinos are subject to lengthy approvals by the federal government.
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe is also pursuing a casino project in Norfolk. Other casinos are being considered in Danville and Portsmouth, and the state has studied the feasibility of casinos in Richmond and Northern Virginia.