Get Ready To Hard Rock And Roll: Bristol’s Getting A Casino

Posted on November 4, 2020

The Bristol Mall will eventually be quite lively again. On Tuesday, the Bristol Casino vote went overwhelmingly positive for proponents of a brick-and-mortar gambling facility just across the border from the town in Tennessee by the same name.

According to the Bristol Herald-Courier, VA voters approved the ballot measure by over a 2:1 margin. That was the last legal hurdle for the $400 million project.

Bristol casino vote split 70/30

If Bristol, TN residents urged their neighbors to the north to vote yes on this measure, it worked. The vote was 5,547 for, 2,221 against on Tuesday.

There was documented support for the project across the border in the Volunteer State. Several TN businesses were part of a coalition to encourage “yes” votes. Jerry Caldwell, the general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, was the most notable Tennessee name to endorse the project.

When the vote gets certified, likely on Friday, it will clear the way for the city’s preferred developer, Hard Rock, to begin its construction plans. Groundbreaking may not take place for a while, however.

Hard Rock still needs a license from the state to operate a retail casino. Before the VA Lottery, which will oversee casino gambling, can issue such a license, it needs the legislature to finish drafting regulations for brick-and-mortar casinos.

Naturally, the legislature could not do so until it was certain that at least one of the four VA cities voting on casino referendums Tuesday would approve those measures. The other cities were:

  • Danville
  • Norfolk
  • Portsmouth

All four measures passed, which means four casinos are coming to the commonwealth. The state’s latest gambling expansion law also authorized a similar referendum in the state capital of Richmond, but that will take place at a later date.

Since Hard Rock received preliminary approval from the state as Bristol’s preferred development partner, the license should largely be a foregone conclusion. If the VA legislature moves to finalize rules quickly, Hard Rock may get to work on renovating the Bristol Mall.

What’s going to happen to the Bristol Mall?

Hard Rock plans to comprehensively transform the mall that has sat largely empty since 2017 into a casino with all the trappings. For example, the former Sears store will become the gaming floor. The plans also include:

  • Convention space
  • Indoor and outdoor concert venues
  • Hotel space

Perhaps most notably for TN residents, the former Belk location will be the site of an employee training center. There also might be a temporary casino while the larger construction is ongoing. That is pending regulatory approval, of course.

Hard Rock estimates that the construction will facilitate 1,000 new temporary jobs. After completion, the developer intends to hire about 2,000 full-time people.

Right now, the casino developers are targeting late 2022 to open the property. The smaller, temporary gaming space could be open late next year, however.

In addition to poker, slots, and table games, sports betting is on the horizon for Virginians. The latest gambling expansion law included room for retail sportsbooks if voters approved brick-and-mortar casinos.

Although some decisions on regulatory matters remain, this vote makes the Hard Rock Bristol an inevitability. People in Tennessee should look forward to not only visiting the casino but potentially working there in the future.

Photo by AP
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Chicago. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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