Signs with the phrases “We’re betting on Bristol” and “Don’t gamble with Bristol’s future” have been in place for months and now the moment of decision is quickly approaching.
On Nov. 3, Bristol has a choice to make. The signs, statements, social media posts and letters to the editor show a stark divide in public opinion. However, the clear benefits of the Hard Rock Bristol Casino and Resort have convinced the Bristol Herald Courier Editorial Board to support its approval.
The financial benefits alone should give detractors pause. The project is expected to initially create 2,000 jobs with combined annual wages of $90 million, with $15 million to $20 million generated for the city in annual tax revenues. These numbers do not include the city’s share of annual gaming tax revenue, which will be significant.
Virginia created the possibility for casinos in the commonwealth specifically for revitalizing five particularly financially challenged cities — including Bristol. The city has been rated near the bottom of Virginia’s economic rankings for years; however, the choice to approve does rest with the city.
The question remains: Can Bristol afford to turn down this opportunity?
More than 10,000 people in Bristol and in 10 Southwest Virginia counties have lost their jobs recently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country as a whole is in recession, and the area has longstanding, unrelated financial hardships that make it particularly vulnerable: aging infrastructure and declining revenue as a result of population movement away from the area.
The project may be Bristol’s best chance to change its story for the better — and certainly, millions of dollars in new revenue as well as related dollars and attention from out-of-town visitors will help. Other factors make the opportunity even more appealing.
The casino is planned to move into the space once occupied by the Bristol Mall. Like other abandoned malls across the country, the empty lot is more than an eyesore or a symbol of changing consumer choices. It was and remains a very real loss to the city as a whole and the surrounding neighborhood, which has faced challenges without the central economic engine of the mall. The planned casino would not only support the city but would also renew a specific neighborhood in need.
In fact, the impact of the casino will be even wider. Revenues will be split among a dozen Southwest Virginia counties in similar need, with hopes for a region-wide renaissance. Furthermore, gubernatorial amendments direct that cities set aside tax revenues from casinos specifically to restore and improve public schools in the area.
Opponents of the casino cite feared rises in crime, drugs and gambling addiction surrounding the construction of a casino in Bristol. The casino’s developers — Jim McGlothlin, president of the United Company, and Clyde Stacy, president of PAR Ventures — have met with opponents and say they respect these concerns as they live locally themselves. However, the developers think the casino will be a boon to local law enforcement and education, as well as the city in general in the form of new jobs.
For reference, much of the research on the connection between casinos and crime rates is both old and inconclusive. In 1999, in what was considered one of the most comprehensive studies on American casinos, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission wrote that there is insufficient data to determine whether casinos cause more crime. The commission concluded: “Taken as a whole, the literature shows that communities with casinos are just as safe as communities that do not have casinos.”
A study by the Associated Press examined crime rates before and after the introduction of two large casinos in Connecticut in the 1990s. The AP reported that crime actually dropped by double-digit percentage points compared to the years before the casinos were constructed, mirroring a decrease in crime nationwide.
Local leaders have made their opinions clear. Bristol, Virginia’s Mayor Bill Hartley, School Board Chairman Steve Fletcher and Police Chief John Austin have all endorsed the casino.
Ultimately, this referendum is nothing less than a choice between two futures.
A future without the casino looks very familiar; it is the natural result of longstanding trends in the area, which cannot be changed without decisive and bold action. The outcome would be fewer residents, older schools and other public infrastructure, and an ongoing struggle to achieve financial stability, let alone larger public projects.
The second future offers opportunities that would have been unimaginable in this area two years ago. Tax revenues to overcome longstanding hardships on a local and regional level. Thousands of new jobs. Revitalized schools and neighborhoods. A commercial ripple effect of more businesses and tourists.
Voting for approval is not a gamble nor a vote for increased crime. It is simply a vote for a brighter future. We urge residents to consider the immense opportunities available — and vote for approval.
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