BRISTOL, Va. – Rock music blared from oversized speakers on the event stage while a half-dozen leaders of the Virginia General Assembly mingled with officials from Hard Rock International, the Virginia Lottery Board, the city of Bristol Virginia and other well-wishers Friday morning.
All assembled in the west parking lot of the former Bristol Mall to celebrate the grand opening of Virginia’s first casino – the Bristol Casino, future home of Hard Rock.
Inside the nearby doors was a dizzying world of beeping, buzzing, flashing slot machines – with names like “Pots of Gold,” “Quick Hit,” “Tiki Fortune,” “Huff & Puff,” and “Thunder Fruit.” Machines seemed to fill every available space on the 30,000 square foot gaming floor. Nearby were electronic versions of popular table games like craps and the more traditional-style table games including roulette with an actual roulette wheel. There are restaurants, a sports bar, sports betting opportunities, a stage and a Rock Shop offering everything from Hard Rock T-shirts, to fudge to Bristol-themed items to Michael Kors handbags and jewelry.
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This isn’t a movie and it’s no longer a dream. Bristol Virginia has a casino.
Much of the mall, meanwhile, is a construction zone with work well underway to transform the remainder of the property into the full Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol, slated to open in May 2024. The entire project is expected to cost $400 million but Hard Rock officials declined to say how much has been spent so far.
Opening the Bristol Casino is the culmination of years of work – moving the mountain that can be state government – to change the law and allow casino gaming while simultaneously fulfilling a dream of providing economic salvation for some of the state’s most challenged communities.
Legislation first introduced in the 2019 General Assembly Session ultimately became law in the spring of 2020. It allowed five cities – Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond – to conduct public referendums to allow one casino to operate in each. Bristol’s vote in November 2020 was an overwhelming 71%.
Proponent Jim McGlothlin called partner Clyde Stacy the “brains of the operation” while relating the phone call when the casino idea first arose in 2018.
“When he [Stacy] told me he bought the Bristol Mall, I said, ‘What in the world are you going to do with it?’” McGlothlin said. “He said ‘We’re going to put a casino in.’ I said, ‘I know you’re not a lawyer so I’ve got some bad news. There is no law allowing that in the state of Virginia.’ But here we are.”
McGlothlin also voiced appreciation for city residents who supported the casino, because the public referendum proved to be a key to helping the casino legislation pass.
“It was always left up to the citizens to approve it or not approve it and 71% of you said yes. That means you are onboard for a better city and a better opportunity for the citizens,” McGlothlin said. “And 600 or 700 are here ready to go to work at 2 o’clock. Those are new jobs that are going to bring millions to this city.”
Many of the casino’s 600 new employees cheered.
McGlothlin also thanked Martin Kent and Jasen Eige of his firm, The United Company, for their work with lawmakers over a three-year period.
“They worked tirelessly in Richmond to make this happen. Without Martin Kent and Jasen Eige, there is no hope this would have come about because they raised the awareness of the need for it in Bristol,” McGlothlin said.
During his remarks, Kent told the lawmakers “we know we would not be here today without you.”
The original bill had two unlikely patrons, former state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Galax and current Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, who saw the unique project as a way to help Southwest Virginia climb out of its economic doldrums. They found a willing ally in 2019, in current Senate President Pro Tempore, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who spent 22 fruitless years promoting casino gaming legislation as an economic lifeline for her constituents.
“For all those years I was on my own,” Lucas said after the ceremony. “Then I met these wonderful gentlemen down here in Bristol – Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy—and the co-patron of the bill, Sen. Bill Carrico. Can you imagine, a Republican white man from Bristol and a Black woman Democrat from Portsmouth? The two of us came together and got this bill passed. That is exciting – working together.”
Portsmouth voters also approved that city’s casino and the Rivers Casino Portsmouth is expected to open early next year. Lucas said she came to Bristol to celebrate.
“It’s like I’m having my own personal party because it’s taken so long,” she said. “I’m so excited for Bristol and I’m going to be ready for the party in Portsmouth in February.”
At the beginning of Friday’s ceremony, Gina Smith, the Virginia Lottery’s deputy director of gaming compliance, presented Bristol Hard Rock President Allie Evangelista with a framed copy of the Bristol gaming license.
Lottery Executive Director Kelly Gee also offered her congratulations.
“The last two years have been wild. An eight-month-long study turned into a 34-page bill signed by the governor in 2020 — when the world shut down. The Lottery turned that 34 pages of code into about 500 pages of rules and regulations for how a casino is to operate. The result was unanimous board approval that Bristol Casino would be the very first licensed casino in the commonwealth,” Gee said to loud applause.
While the Bristol Casino doesn’t carry the full Hard Rock branding, Marcellus Osceola, Jr., current Seminole tribal council chairman – owners of Hard Rock International – came from Florida and praised the energy McGlothlin, Stacy and their group brought to the project. Hard Rock was selected to manage the Bristol property before the 2020 legislative session when lawmakers hammered out the bill.
Osceola said he was impressed with their “vision” and their “heartfelt passion for the city, the state and the neighboring state to put food on people’s tables. To provide jobs to pay for housing and clothing on the backs of their kids. So they can take care of themselves for generations to come.”
He said Hard Rock was “here for the long haul.”
“The best is yet to come. I know this isn’t a Hard Rock but everything is leading down that path to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino which is going to provide more jobs, more housing, more food on tables and more clothes on your children’s back for many years to come. We hope, with your support, we’re able to change more lives. Not just the lives of the people who live here but the people who are visiting and open them up to the rich history of this region of the country,” Osceola said.
Mayor Anthony Farnum summed up what the project represents.
“For Bristolians this means new jobs, it means new growth and new opportunity for us here. For the city it means new visitors, new businesses, new tax revenues,” Farnum said. “This really opens up a lot of doors for us and it helps us take a giant step forward as a city. Today is a day we’ll remember and we’ll remember it forever. It is a great day to celebrate.”