An artist's rendering of the casino coming to Danville, with "The Three Sisters," as the old smokestacks of Dan River Mills are known, in the background. Courtesy City of Danville.

Excitement is growing around the casino projects in Danville and Bristol. But because these casinos will be the some of the first of their kind in the state, it may be as daunting as it is exciting. 

Virginia was one of the last states in the country to legalize casino gambling in 2019. Only five cities were approved as locations to build casino resorts, including Danville and Bristol, where voters approved a casino referendum in 2020. 

This means that operating a casino resort is an entirely new experience for both cities – and the state as well. So, some advice from other smaller towns that opened casinos might be helpful. 

While you’d be hard-pressed to find another town in the exact same situation as Danville or Bristol (many states have had legal casino gambling for decades), a few other small towns have similar experiences and relevant insight to share. 

“I would tell local government in Danville to be hands-on as much as you can,” said Jeff Reiter, economic development director in Bettendorf, Iowa. “Be as collaborative as you can.”

Bettendorf and the Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf have collaborated on several projects, including some for the revitalization of the city, Reiter said. 

Like Danville, Bettendorf was a vibrant manufacturing town that saw the industry decline. But that’s not the only similarity between the two cities. 

Bettendorf and Danville also have similar populations, around 40,000, and the casino in Bettendorf is operated by Caesar’s Entertainment, the same company that will operate the casino in Danville. 

The casino has been a great city partner, Reiter said, especially in contributing to a recent self-taxing district that collects revenue for renewal.  

“[The casino] contributes monetarily every year to help with that investment,” Reiter said. “They actually pump tens of thousands of dollars into the downtown organization to help with revitalization efforts.”

The Bettendorf casino is also one of the largest employers in the city. And when it moved on land from its riverboat location in 2016, the city added a multi-million-dollar property, which tremendously increased property tax revenue. 

Other collaborative projects between Bettendorf and the casino include building a convention center and renovating the jetty left behind from the riverboat location into a park. 

“[The jetty] could’ve been a desolate piece of land along our river, but we worked with the casino to do a 50/50 match to revitalize that jetty into a park,” Reiter said. 

These projects have been successful because the city and casino worked together, he said, advising Danville and Bristol officials to create a collaborative relationship with the coming casinos. 

“Municipally, if the city can approach them with a partnership-style arrangement, whenever they have needs or wants, it seems to go a lot further,” Reiter said. 

Other cities had similar success stories to share, giving Danville and Bristol much to look forward to. 

In West Memphis, Arkansas, the Southland casino has been around as a greyhound racetrack since 1956. But it only became a full casino in 2019, when the state legalized slot machines and Southland added live table games. 

After this change, Southland expanded by bringing in a 20-story hotel. The biggest building in West Memphis before that was six stories, said Steven Jones, senior advisor to the mayor. 

And as the casino’s business has grown, it has been able to contribute more financially to the city. 

“In terms of what their revenue has done, it’s a pretty big deal,” Jones said. 

The city has added new libraries, two new fire stations, a new courthouse, and set up a school of hospitality at the local college with the help of the casino, Jones said. Southland also contributes to the Boys & Girls Club of America and other charities.  

“We wanted a summer jobs program, but it wasn’t in the city budget,” he said. “The casino wrote a check and funded the whole thing.”

Like the Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf, Southland is one of the largest employers in the city, Jones said

It also affects the economy by bringing thousands of people into town every weekend. 

West Memphis, which has a population of around 24,000, sees 20,000-30,000 people attend the casino weekly, and around 70% are out-of-towners, Jones said. 

“The town population doubles from Thursday to Sunday,” he said. 

This is partly because the casino sits at the intersection of two major interstates, I-40 and I-55, and an average of 60,000 vehicles pass per day, Jones said. 

But there is a downside to this too, Jones said. 

“If you double the number of people in your town, it doubles the number of people who do things they shouldn’t do,” he said. “It would be malpractice to not increase police security out by the casino.”

But Southland provides some money for tightened security, Jones said, and there has never been a major incident. 

And the benefits of the casino outweigh the concerns, he said. The casino has opened its doors for free to hold scholarship fairs, chamber of commerce meetings, Rotary Club meetings, and meetings of other local organizations. 

“Southland has been a great corporate citizen and helped out in a lot of areas where they city would be looking for revenue,” Jones said. “They have provided jobs for many families here for decades.”

And other areas report benefits from having a casino resort in town, even when the casino is on reservation lands or is decades old. 

Graton Resort & Casino, just outside Rohnert Park, California, a town with about 42,000 people, is operated by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and opened in 2013. 

Here, the casino doesn’t pay a property tax because it is independent from the city, but they still “bring a substantial amount of visitors” to Rohnert Park, said Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz. 

“The casino is self-sustaining,” Schwartz said. “But still, people buy gas, or go to restaurants sometimes if they’re not eating at their hotel, or they patronize other businesses.”

And in Emeryville, California, where the Oaks Card Club has been around since 1898, it maintains a good relationship with the city of about 12,000 people. 

“Sales tax and hotels are our two biggest revenue contributors, but right in line after that is the card room,” said Chadrick Smalley, economic development and housing manager for the city of Emeryville. 

Overall, it seems that there is a lot to gain from opening casinos in smaller towns. 

In Danville, the conceptual design for the casino project is complete. Work to remove the former Dan River Inc. finishing building to create space for the casino began in January. 

Groundbreaking still hasn’t happened, but the goal is for construction to start in the spring or shortly thereafter. 

In Bristol, Hard Rock is building a 30,000-square-foot temporary casino at the former Bristol Mall before the permanent casino is built. 

Construction on the temporary Hard Rock Hotel & Casino began at the end of 2021. It has set an opening date of July 8.

As long as these two cities work to collaborate and stay hands-on with the new casinos, they have much to look forward to, according to officials in other small towns with casino resorts.  

“I don’t know if it’s earth-shattering advice to anyone,” Schwartz said, “but it’s a good idea to communicate well with your local businesses.”

Rendering of the future Hard Rock casino in Bristol. Courtesy of Hard Rock.

Grace Mamon

Grace Mamon is a senior journalism and English student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. She is the co-editor-in-chief of the university's independent student-run newspaper, the...