BRISTOL, Va. — Calling it a “new day” for Bristol and its residents, backers of the proposed Hard Rock Hotel & Casino resort celebrated a resounding victory Tuesday night.
More than 71% of city voters said yes to the $400-million project planned for the former Bristol Mall site on Gate City Highway in a simple yes-no vote. The casino received 5,457 yes votes, compared to 2,221 against, according to unofficial totals late Tuesday. About 7,700 of the city’s 11,723 registered voters cast ballots — either through early voting or at the polls Tuesday. The project swept all four precincts and won overwhelmingly among those early voters.
For perspective, the casino received 132 more votes and enjoyed a larger percentage of city votes than President Donald Trump.
All totals remain unofficial until election officials complete their final canvass Friday.
“The voters tonight have positively said to us, we really want a Hard Rock casino in Bristol, Virginia, so many, many thanks for all the strong support and giving us the encouragement to do it,” casino backer and United Co. Chairman and CEO Jim McGlothlin said at a hurriedly called news conference at the mall. “I am so excited to get this project going. … It is a new day for Bristol and its people. With Hard Rock as our partner, we’re going to do some good things, I promise you.”
McGlothlin and Par Ventures President Clyde Stacy initiated this concept in the fall of 2018, then worked for nearly two years promoting legislation that would allow residents of economically challenged cities to vote on a casino operating there.
Three other Virginia cities, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth, also staged casino referendums Tuesday.
“Jim and I put the referendum in. The state didn’t do that,” Stacy said. “We wanted the public to have the final say, and we didn’t think it should be here if the people didn’t want it.”
Stacy said that those who oppose the project can take solace that the project backers have repeatedly pledged to make the project “great for Bristol.”
Hard Rock International has already been pre-certified as the preferred operator, but must apply for and secure a state gaming license, once the Virginia Lottery Board finalizes its casino regulations.
“We’re very excited,” Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen said via a conference call. “We have watched the conversation for well over 10 years about the possibility of some form of gaming in Virginia. … We do things a little differently. Our brand is a brand of entertainment and some incredible good fortune came our way when I was introduced to Mr. McGlothlin and saw his amazing success and passion for that part of the state. We certainly had other opportunities, but we just felt the right partnership was with Jim, and we’re really looking forward to creating something exciting in Bristol.”
Asked about a temporary gaming facility, Allen said they hope to pursue that with the state and it could potentially be in place by late 2021. The casino, hotel and resort are expected to open in late 2022, Allen said.
Florida-based Hard Rock International operates about 250 venues in over 75 countries, including nine casinos in the U.S., Canada and the Dominican Republic, with four more — not counting Bristol — in development.
City Manager Randy Eads, who was wearing a jacket with an orange Hard Rock Bristol lining, praised the voters.
“The citizens of Bristol, Virginia overwhelmingly supported Hard Rock International having a new home here in our city,” Eads said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the citizens of the city of Bristol and Southwest Virginia. … With this vote tonight, the citizens of Bristol have given us the opportunity to turn the tide and make positive differences in people’s lives here in our community.”
A Bristol casino resort is forecast to generate up to 2,000 jobs and between $15 million and $20 million in new annual tax revenues for a city whose annual per capita income is $22,900 for individuals, or 64% less than the state average of $37,700, according to the U.S. Census. The city’s median household income is $37,900, just over half the Virginia median income.
“Thanks to the citizens of Bristol for voting for this opportunity for our community,” Mayor Bill Hartley said. “I look forward to what it will mean in terms of jobs, in terms of revenue for the city. I also want to thank Jim McGlothlin, Clyde Stacy and Jim Allen of Hard Rock for their investment in our community and all the work that went into getting it to this point. There is still work to be done, but there is a lot of excitement around this and I think it will be very beneficial.”
firstname.lastname@example.org | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC