Bill to legalize casinos in Virginia advances, fate unclear

Conceptual rendering courtesy of Pamunkey Indian Tribe
Conceptual rendering courtesy of Pamunkey Indian Tribe.

Legislation to legalize casinos in Virginia is advancing in the General Assembly, but the odds of passage are still unknown.

A pro-casino bill was approved with bipartisan support Monday by the General Laws and Technology Committee in the state Senate.

The legislation would allow developers to build casinos in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth if residents approved local referendums. The legislation now also lets the Pamunkey Indian Tribe build casinos in Richmond and Norfolk with local approval.

Supporters of casinos said Monday’s vote was a good first step. But hurdles remain.

It’s unknown if Republican leaders of the General Assembly will let the measure advance much further. And Gov. Ralph Northam has voiced concerns about casino legalization being rushed through without proper study.

In December, Pamunkey Indian Tribe spokesman Jay Smith said the tribe is eyeing about 20 acres along the Elizabeth River between a minor league baseball stadium and an Amtrak station near Norfolk’s downtown. Negotiations are already underway with city officials.

Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray announced the intentions of his tribe to bring a world class resort casino and spa in Norfolk, according to letters from Gray and Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander.

The Pamunkey announced plans earlier this year to build a $700 million resort and casino in its ancestral region. The tribe says that area includes central Virginia near Richmond and stretches down to the Hampton Roads region.

The Pamunkey were among the group of tribes led by Chief Powhatan in what is now Virginia. Many had lost their lands in the 1700s.

The Pamunkey were among the few tribes that held onto their reservations. It still has about 1,200 acres outside Richmond.

The Nansemond tribe is objecting to the Pamunkey tribe’s claim that its ancestral lands stretched as far south as Norfolk.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs would have to approve the casino. Among the things it would consider is the Pamunkey’s claim that it had a presence in what is now Norfolk. The Nansemond tribe claims it inhabited that land, not the Pamunkey.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.