Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Not Tipping Hand on Casino Legislation, But Open to Discussion

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) isn’t saying whether he would sign a casino bill placed on his desk during the 2020 legislative session to bring commercial gambling to the Old Dominion.

Last year, the Virginia General Assembly sent him SB1126, a law that allows casinos to be built in areas that meet a slew of conditions. Five cities qualify – Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, Richmond, and Norfolk – and Northam signed the legislation.

However, SB1126 was more of a casino study law than full authorization of commercial gambling. The bill requires a subsequent law to be passed this year before casino licenses can be issued for the five cities.

The General Assembly began its 60-day legislative session on Wednesday, and gambling is once again a floor topic in both the Senate and House of Delegates.

Doubling Down

Northam signed the first casino bill to potentially bring gambling to Virginia, which is one of just nine states that doesn’t have commercial or tribal casinos. But that doesn’t mean the first-term governor will do it again.

“It’s clear that there’s going to be a robust discussion in the General Assembly this year regarding legalized gaming. There are several proposals on the table,” Northam told the Bristol Herald Courier.

These are going to be thoroughly vetted by our legislators,” Northam added. “My philosophy is Virginia needs to be very thoughtful in its approach. If we’re going to expand gambling, we need to do it responsibly.”

The governor said there also needs to be a careful examination of how casinos might impact lottery revenues. The Virginia Lottery was formed in 1987, and generates approximately $1.6 million per day for K-12 public schools.   

Bids Coming

Interested casino operators and real estate developers are already floating their concepts. In Bristol, the town that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border in the southwestern part of the state, two proposals have emerged.

This week, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians revealed its partnership with developer Steve Johnson. Together, they’re seeking to build a casino resort at Johnson’s The Pinnacle commercial shopping center. The proposal calls for a casino, hotel, outdoor concert venue, and indoor water park.

Earlier, Hard Rock International and Virginia businessmen Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy announced a $250 million investment to place a casino inside the vacant Bristol Mall.

Bristol considers itself the birthplace of country music, the town adopting a resolution identifying itself as such in 1998. Music producer Ralph Peer began making records there in the late 1920s. He’s credited with what’s considered the first country music recording when he worked with Fiddlin’ John Carson on his take on “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.”

Bristol officials have backed the Hard Rock plan, as the casino operator is synonymous with music history.

Northam concluded this week, “There are really a lot of options out there right now. I’m open to it, and I’ve said that all along. As governor, I just want to be sure we move forward responsibly when we do it.”

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