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Pamunkey tribe in negotiations with Norfolk for riverfront casino project

Pamunkey tribe in negotiations with Norfolk for riverfront casino project

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The Pamunkey Tribe hopes to open a Norfolk casino (shown in a rendering).

Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe is in negotiations with the city of Norfolk for a riverfront casino project on 20 acres of land near the city’s minor league baseball stadium, according to city officials and a spokesman for the tribe.

The tribe has been searching for land in eastern Virginia for a $700 million casino project it’s been pursuing after winning federal recognition a few years ago. The possible locations covered a wide expanse of land between Richmond and Hampton Roads, but the tribe appears to have settled on a spot near the Harbor Park stadium, the home of the Norfolk Tides.

“After a long process to find the perfect site for our resort and casino, we believe we have found that location on the banks of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk,” Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray said in a letter released by the city.

The land is owned by the city, which means the deal will involve a more extensive public process and local approvals.

Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander voiced enthusiasm about the project, saying he looks forward to working with the tribe to create “another destination for Norfolk.”

“After looking at other cities, they chose Norfolk,” Alexander said. “Our city is welcoming, inclusive and has momentum created by years of strategic leadership and vision. The tribe’s decision validates Norfolk as an emerging destination for tourism in the Mid-Atlantic, and the center for entertainment in Hampton Roads.”

The tribe has already secured more than 600 acres of land in New Kent County for future economic development projects, but the prospect of a casino in a rural county stirred opposition from some New Kent residents.

As Virginia considers relaxing its laws on gambling and casinos, the plan for a tribal casino remains something of a wild card. The tribe will have to undergo a lengthy federal approval process before being able to complete the project, and the timeline for that process is unclear. Gray said earlier this year that he would like to see the casino operational within five years, but outside observers have said it could be closer to 10.

Selecting a site somewhere on the tribe’s ancestral homelands has been the first order of business. Though the negotiations with Norfolk are the most advanced, Jay Smith, a communications consultant working with the tribe, said other options are still being considered.

“We are still pursuing other localities, including the city of Richmond and the surrounding region,” Smith said.

During the General Assembly session that starts next month, Virginia lawmakers will consider bills that would clear a path for a resort casino in Southwest Virginia, as well as multiple bills that would legalize sports betting in the state.

“The Pamunkey tribe will be watching closely every piece of legislation that involves gaming,” Smith said.

Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough, who has an extensive résumé in the tribal gaming industry, has partnered with the Pamunkey tribe as it pursues a casino.

The Pamunkey people, who have held on to a small fraction of the land reserved for Virginia Indians in a 1646 peace treaty, has about 380 members nationwide. About 80 people live on the tribe’s reservation on a marshy peninsula in King William County.

After a 30-year push, the tribe won federal recognition in 2015, and with it came the rights to pursue gaming as a revenue stream.

The casino project is envisioned as the centerpiece of the tribe’s development efforts, which Gray has said also include plans to provide better housing, health care and education for Pamunkey members.

“Through the tribe’s history, ancestors of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe have lived, farmed and hunted across much of central and eastern Virginia. That land includes what is now known as Norfolk,” Gray said. “And just as this area played an important role in the tribe’s past, I believe that Norfolk will play an even more important role in the Pamunkey Tribe’s future.”

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