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Casino jumps final regulatory hurdle

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Updated casino rendering

This updated rendering of the finished version of the Hard Rock Casino was shown to the Virginia Lottery Board Wednesday. Gaming at the soon-to-open temporary casino was approved by a 7-0 vote of the board.

BRISTOL, Va. – The first casino in Virginia can open here this summer after the Virginia Lottery Board unanimously approved a casino gaming operator's license for HR Bristol, LLC Wednesday.

The project is a joint effort by The United Company and its Chairman Jim McGlothlin, Par Ventures and its President Clyde Stacy and Hard Rock International. A temporary casino with gaming and dining options is scheduled to open Friday, July 8 in part of the former Bristol Mall. The full Hard Rock casino, hotel and resort are now slated to open in the summer of 2024.

“Securing the license is the culmination of a five-year process that began as a brainstorming session between McGlothlin and Stacy after Stacy’s efforts to lure businesses and industry to the vacant former mall encountered little success,” United Company President and CEO Martin Kent told the board.

The result was a dream of establishing casino gaming which required legislation supported during two consecutive sessions of the Virginia General Assembly followed by public referendums in the five cities chosen as possible sites because of economic hardships.

Hard Rock, which is based in Florida and has an international reputation in the dining, gaming, hospitality and entertainment industries, joined the partnership early on as the facility operator.

“We are excited by the Virginia Lottery Board’s action today granting a license to open Virginia’s first casino in Bristol subject to the completion of outstanding operational activities,” Jon Lucas, chief operating officer of Hard Rock International said in a written statement. “We appreciate the Virginia Lottery’s assistance and diligence in working closely with our team over many months to reach today’s important milestone for Bristol, Southwest Virginia and the commonwealth.”

The temporary facility, dubbed ‘Bristol Casino – Future Home of Hard Rock,’ will feature 30,000 square feet of casino space with 870 slots, 22 table games, two restaurants, two bars, a sportsbook and Rock Shop retail site, Lucas said.

It is expected to employ more than 600 people.

The $400 million Hard Rock facility is expected to employ more than 1,200 and offer patrons 1,500 slots, 55 table games, a 300-room hotel in phase one that can be expanded to 750 rooms, five restaurants, four bars and lounges, a sportsbook, and Hard Rock Live, and indoor venue for 2,300 that can be expanded for outdoor entertainment.

Wednesday’s 7-0 vote followed a two-hour presentation by officials of Hard Rock International and representatives of HR Bristol, LLC, who outlined the plans and expectations for the Bristol project and answered a wide array of questions from board members.

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“Since enacted by the 2020 General Assembly, the board’s priority for casino gaming in the commonwealth is that it be conducted with integrity and in a responsible manner,” Board Chairman Ferhan Hamid said in a statement. “Today’s approval reflects the confidence we have in the rigorous and conscientious review conducted by Virginia Lottery staff.”

The lottery continues to review application materials for three more proposed casinos in Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth. Each was approved by voters in local referenda in November 2020.

“The Virginia Lottery has worked diligently for two years to build the appropriate regulatory structure for casino gaming,” acting Executive Director Kelly T. Gee said in the statement. “I am proud of the tireless work by our gaming compliance department and our legal counsel for conducting the necessary investigative work to assist the board in its decision. There are still many steps to the finish line, but there is no doubt that this is an exciting time.”

Exciting was an adjective also used by Bristol Virginia Mayor Anthony Farnum, who has been staunch supporter of the casino project.

“It’s so gratifying to go through all the steps, see the support for the local referendum that we had then to be able to say the first casino in Virginia is going to open right here in Bristol is really special,” Farnum said Wednesday afternoon. “I always thought it made sense to support this project because it means so many new jobs, new growth and new tax revenue for our city. It will really help put Southwest Virginia on the map.”

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, was among the lawmakers who carried the legislation to the finish line, as the General Assembly approved it by overwhelming, bipartisan margins.

“This is another important step in the process of bringing Hard Rock Bristol to life,” Pillion said. “As approved in overwhelming fashion by the citizens of Bristol, this project will be transformative for the surrounding region which stands to benefit from the thousands of jobs that will be created and the millions of dollars in new revenue that will improve our infrastructure, enhance public safety, fund public schools, and strengthen our communities. I applaud the developers, our local leaders, my colleagues in the General Assembly and the regulators who are working to ensure a thoughtful and responsible approach to this project.”

Hard Rock Chief Financial Officer John Eder told the board the parties have amassed about $130 million in cash for the project and plan to borrow the remainder. It will likely be on the bond market and noted Hard Rock has investment grade ratings by two of the three major financial rating agencies, Eder said.

Hard Rock Bristol President Allie Evangelista addressed the board and introduced the other members of the Bristol executive team. They include Marc Deleo, vice-president of marketing; Pam Salas, vice-president of human resources; Mark Begrin, vice president of finance; Danny Jimenez, vice president of food and beverage and Mike Spatz, vice president of casino operations. Combined, they have nearly 100 years of experience in the gaming industry.

The lottery’s gaming compliance department will continue to work closely with Hard Rock Bristol as it prepares to open the temporary facility, said the lottery’s Deputy Executive Director of Gaming Compliance Gina Smith.

“We will be on site at the casino over the next couple of months observing the receipt of gaming equipment, reviewing internal controls and ensuring full compliance with the regulations,” Smith said.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC | Facebook.com/david.mcgee.127

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