The temporary Bristol Casino (seen here in a photo taken in late June) opened Friday in the former Belk store, around the back of the old mall property. The Hard Rock name won't be attached to the property until the full resort opens in 2024. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

BRISTOL – Veda Drive runs for not quite a fifth of a mile through a neighborhood of small houses on the west end of Bristol, on the Virginia side of the city.

The properties on the odd-numbered side of Veda back up to houses on neighboring Everett Street. Through a patchy barrier of trees, the homeowners on the even-numbered side have had a very different view from their backyards: a vast expanse of asphalt bisected by construction fences and populated by delivery trucks and workers in hardhats – a sight that developers hope will give way to a steady stream of cars carrying blackjack fans and slots players 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As the old Bristol Mall has transformed into the new Bristol Casino, the neighborhood around Veda Drive has become a microcosm of the changes brought across the city by the announcement of a $400 million gaming and entertainment complex.

Over the last 18 months or so, half of the homes on this dead-end street have sold, according to online real estate records. Another property recently went under contract after just two days on the market; if previous sales were any indication, this one, too, probably will become an Airbnb rental. A house with frontage on the four-lane Gate City Highway sold last summer for $324,500, nearly four times its assessed value. A developer plans to build a 30-room hotel on the site.

Bristol is no stranger to tourism; the Bristol Motor Speedway, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum draw tens of thousands of visitors every year. But the casino promises to raise that to an entirely new level.

Casino details

The temporary Bristol Casino that opens Friday will offer:

870 slot machines

21 table games

A sportsbook

The Bristol Bar, a sports and entertainment lounge

Mr. Lucky’s, a full-service restaurant

Brick’d, a pizzeria with grab-and-go options

The Rock Shop gift shop

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Bristol will open in 2024 with additional games and amenities expected to include:

1,500 slot machines

55 table games

300 hotel rooms

Hard Rock Live music and entertainment venue

An amphitheater

A temporary casino that opens Friday will offer a selection of gambling and dining options, including 870 slot machines and 21 table games. But when the full Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Bristol opens in 2024 – with a vastly expanded casino floor and amenities including a 300-room hotel, an indoor music venue and an amphitheater – it’s expected to draw 3 million to 4 million visitors a year.

The promise of new tax revenue, new spending and new jobs led more than 70% of Bristol voters to support the casino project in a November 2020 referendum, the highest among the five Virginia cities approved for casino gaming in a law signed earlier that year by then-Gov. Ralph Northam.

But with the casino now open, questions still loom, even among some project backers.

Will people still come to downtown Bristol to shop? Will crime increase? What about traffic? Where will all of the casino employees live? Will the casino suck up all of the available local workers?

Will Bristol still be Bristol?

“No one knows exactly what this casino is going to do, because we don’t have experience in this area,” said Kim Sproles, who owns a promotional products company and has applied to be a vendor for the new casino. People she knows around Bristol have never worked in a casino, or done business with a casino, or lived near a casino.

She knows a couple of people who have been hired by Hard Rock for good wages. She believes that the tax revenues that the project will generate will bolster the city’s tenuous fiscal situation, and she expects that the casino will boost the region’s larger tourism industry.

A rendering of the future Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Bristol. Courtesy of Hard Rock.

But she knows that the uncertainty makes some people uneasy. “This is a whole new entity for our area,” she said.

Jasen Eige, vice president and general counsel of the Bristol-based United Company, a partner in the casino project with Par Ventures, said he understands the concerns but wants to dispel them. 

“We live here,” he said. “We’re not coming in from out of town or out of state to develop something just because it makes sense for us financially for Bristol. This is our community. Our children live here, go to school here.”

He said they’ve talked to the mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi, who told them that his city has retained its charm despite getting a casino more than 25 years ago. 

“That’s how we envision this as well,” Eige said. “This is another industry being brought to this community, but it’s still going to have the same small-town charm.” 

* * *

There have been discussions about running a shuttle between downtown Bristol and the casino, 3 miles away. Maggie Elliott, who heads downtown Bristol’s marketing entity, sees it as a “great opportunity” for downtown. “I think there will be probably a little bit of a learning curve as far as how to market ourselves appropriately for those visitors to the casino,” she said. “I’m still very optimistic and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for downtown to reach that traffic that we haven’t had before.” Photo by Megan Schnabel.

One day this spring, the traffic light at Catherine Street and Gate City Highway, in front of the Bristol Mall property, suddenly came back to life.

The light, a relic of the mall’s heyday, hadn’t been needed in years; after the mall closed in 2017, cars and trucks rushed right on past on the highway, unchecked by traffic signals.

But in the late summer of 2018, two local developers unveiled a plan to turn the 500,000-square-foot former retail center into a casino and entertainment complex. Within months, the idea of legalizing casino gambling had gotten traction in Richmond, and when Bristol voters signed off on it in late 2020, the old mall’s new fate was set.

And so this spring, construction trucks and out-of-state cars started showing up, and the weedy expanse of mall parking lot started showing signs of new life.

The casino that opens Friday will be a temporary placeholder; it won’t even bear the Hard Rock name, although it will host a Rock Shop that will sell the chain’s branded t-shirts and merchandise.

And local fudge.

The Bristol Casino will sell fudge made just a few miles away at Southern Churn, a sweet shop on State Street in downtown Bristol. Owner Karen Hester started working with Hard Rock in 2019 and already supplies fudge for casinos in Florida, Ohio and Indiana. “It’s really exciting for us, to be a small business and to do that kind of work with that caliber of company,” she said. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

“My very first job – I was 15 – was at the mall, when the mall was all of the rage,” said Tracy Ferguson, who makes the fudge sold at Southern Churn, a sweet shop in downtown Bristol. She worked at Karmelkorn, selling flavored popcorn and candy and hanging out with her teenage friends. “That was the place to be. Everybody came there to shop, to eat, to go to the movies.”

It’s funny, she said, to think that the confections she makes now, 35 years later, will be for sale in that same building.

Southern Churn owner Karen Hester met Hard Rock executives in late 2019 when they were visiting Bristol to look at casino sites. They stopped into the shop and tasted the fudge, she said, and days later she was on a Zoom call with a Hard Rock buyer, choosing flavors and finalizing a purchase order. Hard Rock started selling the fudge at its Florida casino, then at the Cincinnati Hard Rock, and then at the new Gary, Indiana, casino. 

The Bristol Casino’s gift shop is next.

Around Bristol, Hester is an evangelist for Hard Rock. She encourages other local business owners to explore supplier relationships with the casino company. She says college kids should start driving for Uber to ferry casino visitors around town. She thinks homeowners with spare mother-in-law suites or finished basements should list with Airbnb and get their piece of the casino pie.

Hester herself has a dozen short-term rentals and has been helping to house Hard Rock executives while they search for homes to buy.

“If I was a small business sitting on the sidelines, thinking, you know, do I have something that might fit or not, well, I wouldn’t take it for granted that your business might not be a fit,” she said.

Kim Sproles, who owns a promotional products business and is applying to become a vendor for Hard Rock, thinks the casino will bring much-needed tax revenue and exposure to Bristol. “It’s almost like things stop right there at Richmond, and it’s just the mid- and northern part of Virginia that matters,” she said. “I’m going, are you serious? We have so much going on down here.” Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Sproles has spent months going through the application process to allow her company, KS Promotional Products, to become a casino supplier, and she still hasn’t reached the end. Anyone who wants to do business with the casino – with any of Virginia’s new casinos – has to be vetted by the Virginia Lottery, a complicated and time-consuming process that has generated an inch-thick folder of paperwork sitting on Sproles’ desk.

She almost didn’t apply. She’d read through all of the requirements and told her contact at Hard Rock that she didn’t think it would be a good fit for her. But her contact offered to walk her through the process and help her submit quotes for items like hats and shirts and journals. 

“She said, ‘We’re going to work with you hand in hand because we want to work with local vendors,’” Sproles said.

Allie Evangelista, president of Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Bristol, said last month that about a hundred local companies had gone through the vendor verification process to date. A company from Knoxville, Tennessee, will deliver bread. A shop outside Abingdon will provide VIP gifts and baskets for the Hard Rock loyalty program. Another local business has worked on landscaping, another pressure-washed the building, another is handling pest control. Ice sculptures and custom ice for cocktails will come from yet another.

“The truth is, we want to do business with locals because that’s what brings the benefit to the community,” Evangelista said. “But we want to make sure that the community can support us, can actually support the volume that we do.” 

Some local businesses just aren’t able to ramp up their production enough to work with the casino; she can’t just call any restaurant around town when she needs 300 box lunches for employees, she said. 

“We know with time, we’ll be able to do more business with locals,” she said. “Some of the vendors are just adapting to what we are looking for, and hopefully they will be able to do business with us in the future.”

Spence Flagg, who opened Cascade Draft House in downtown Bristol in 2019, said he’s “leaning in” to the casino. He wants to talk to Hard Rock about bringing some kind of local craft beer experience to the casino, and he and his wife bought a house near the casino to rent out.

Flagg is on the chamber of commerce board and works with local tourism efforts, and he said he’s appreciated Hard Rock’s civic involvement so far.

“They seem really on board with the community, and downtown, which is exciting, and not just coming in and saying, ‘We’re doing this our way, get out of the way,’” he said. 

“To me, they’re checking all the boxes,” he said. “I know there’s some people that are worried that all the commerce will leave downtown and head back out to the mall like it did in the late ’80s, but I don’t really see that happening.” 

Downtown Bristol has become an arts and music hub, with the opening of venues like the Paramount Bristol and the Cameo Theater. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Flagg thinks visitors will see the casino area as an extension of downtown; the two are on the same road, less than 3 miles apart, with a busy commercial area in between.

Maggie Elliott, the executive director of Believe in Bristol, the downtown marketing group, has heard that kind of talk among her members.

“That concern is absolutely valid,” she said. “In a traditional business model I know that we’ve seen, they don’t necessarily want the guests to leave the headquarters or the casino compound. The longer people stay in the casino, or the restaurants or shops within the casino, obviously the more money that they receive.” 

But the fact that Hard Rock has partnered with entities like Believe in Bristol and the Birthplace of Country Music has alleviated some of her worries, she said. “From the get-go they have been very community-focused,” she said.

Downtown Bristol has seen a resurgence since the 1990s, with the opening, or reopening, of music and arts venues, the development of housing, and the arrival of new restaurants, shops and two hotels.

“Downtown Bristol is charming,” Elliott said. “And even if people don’t realize it’s here, once they find it, it’s also hard to leave downtown and to not be drawn back to the environment downtown.”

The idea of running shuttles between the casino and downtown has come up repeatedly, she said, and she thinks a service like that eventually will be available.

She knows that Hard Rock executives have visited downtown merchants to talk about collaborations like the one they’ve built with Southern Churn. She thinks some owners might wait to make any decisions until they can see the casino in action, but she said she wouldn’t be surprised to see more local businesses working with Hard Rock later on.

Between 600 and 700 people have been hired to staff the temporary casino, and Evangelista has said she anticipates the need for 1,200 to 1,500 employees once the full facility opens in 2024. Hard Rock has said that average employee compensation will be $46,500, a figure that could include tips in some job categories. The median household income in Bristol, Virginia, is $39,679; on the Tennessee side, it’s $42,067.

“I feel like we’re doing extremely well, considering the environment of hiring and recruiting for everyone else across the country,” Evangelista said.

With unemployment at just 3.1% in May in the Kingsport-Bristol metropolitan statistical area, and with local employers already struggling to find workers, “there’s a concern across the board” that small businesses will find it even harder to hire, Elliott said.

A 2019 study about the impacts of legalizing casino gambling in Virginia, conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, pointed out that many people hired by the state’s new casinos would already be employed locally and would simply be leaving one job for another. Additionally, some prospective local workers, including some who are currently unemployed, might not be able to pass the stringent background checks required of would-be casino employees, the study said.

Elliott believes that Bristol will figure out how to make it work.

“We’re excited for it, and we’re optimistic and can see the significant benefit,” she said. “If there’s any woes, it’s just what we don’t know yet. Bristol has adapted in different ways before and we’ll adapt to this as well. But I think it’s all good and beneficial for our existing downtown.”

* * *

Nods to Bristol’s musical heritage dot the city’s downtown. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Just three years before the casino referendum was held, Bristol was deemed the most fiscally distressed locality in Virginia by the state auditor of public accounts.

The city was saddled with more than $100 million in debt, due in part to financial problems with its landfill and to the sale of tens of millions of dollars in bonds to fund a massive commercial development called The Falls that remained largely vacant.

The city’s challenges have been demographic as well. As with most localities in the Southwest corner of Virginia, Bristol has watched its population drop over the decades; it now stands at just over 17,000, down 4.4% since the 2010, and from a 1980 census peak of 19,000. About 22% of its residents live in poverty, compared to 9% for the state as a whole. (Bristol, Tennessee, with a population of almost 27,000, has gained about 3.1% in population since the 2010 census.)

Bristol is no longer on the state’s financially distressed list, but City Manager Randall Eads still preaches caution. 

While he called the casino project “probably the largest economic development project south of Roanoke in modern history” – and noted that it was funded by private investment, not local incentives – he urged the Bristol City Council to not factor any casino-related tax revenues into the 2022-23 budget, which took effect July 1.

It seemed “somewhat irresponsible,” he said, to start spending money that hasn’t been made yet.

Assuming the city does start to see revenue increases that it can tie to the casino, Eads said he’d like to see a significant portion of the new money put toward paying down debt, and the rest toward capital and staffing needs. 

He’s already predicting that Bristol will need to increase its police, fire and rescue staffing. 

“Our No. 1 responsibility is to give any business an opportunity to come here and thrive,” he said. “And we need to support them in any sort of endeavor to do that.” With the casino project, that means providing the public safety services that are needed to make patrons feel safe and welcome, he said.

“We’re going to have a significant number of people coming into the city, especially once the full casino opens, and we need to be prepared for that,” he said. “Anytime you have more people in an area, you’re going to have more crime.”

Bob McNab, director of the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University, said the literature bears out Eads’ prediction. 

The impact on crime is one of those points that tends to be overstated or understated depending on your position about casinos, he said. But his team, which included a chapter on gaming in its 2021 State of the Commonwealth Report, did find that crimes such as robbery, prostitution and fraud tend to increase around casinos, as do interactions with people who have substance abuse and gambling problems.

Flagg has heard the concerns about whether the casino will bring influx of drugs or prostitution or other crime, and he thinks they’re overblown. Lottery ticket sales and skill games have already proliferated around the region, he said; in his opinion, the casino will be a big step up.

“This is a Hard Rock casino,” he said. “This is the high end of it. … These people are coming in to spend money. Bring it on.”

Just how much money the city and its businesses stand to gain remains a subject of much discussion around town, but it’s not an easy figure to determine.

A study conducted in 2018 by a private consultant at the request of the casino developers and the JLARC study a year later done by the state were intended to assess the impacts, financial and otherwise, of casino projects in Bristol and elsewhere in Virginia. But both were dealing with significant unknowns; the earlier study was conducted before there was any public discussion of casinos in other parts of the state, and neither study could accurately say how large the Bristol casino would end up being, or who would run it, or what the state would set as its gaming tax rate. 

They agreed that a casino would create additional local tax revenue, but their predictions ranged from $3.7 million to $28 million a year. Same with annual casino revenues (up to $169 million, or up to $890 million) and job creation (1,100, or 5,200). 

Because of the pandemic, rising interest rates, supply chain issues and worldwide inflation, those predictions from four years ago are even less reliable today, and the developers say they’re still refining both attendance and revenue projections based on changing economic factors.

Further muddying their math: Early forecasts looked at the impact of a full casino and resort complex, not the kind of temporary casino that opened this week in Bristol. 

But Martin Kent, president and CEO of The United Company, said they’re aiming for 3 million to 4 million visitors a year once the full resort opens in two years. He said he hasn’t seen recent revenue projections, which are still being fine-tuned; the 2019 JLARC study estimated total gaming and non-gaming revenue at up to $169 million annually.

Knowing how much new money will come into Bristol depends in no small part on knowing where casino visitors are coming from – and how they normally spend their discretionary dollars.

In the language of economists, it’s a question of additionality vs. displacement: Are people from outside the area bringing in new money – money that wouldn’t otherwise have been spent in the region – or are casino visitors just reallocating dollars that otherwise would have bought a burger and a beer at a local restaurant?

“That’s one of the dangers of casinos,” McNab said. “People point to casino revenues and go, ‘Look at all the money that’s being spent at this casino,’ not recognizing that money is taken away from local businesses, bars, restaurants, movie theaters and other establishments.” 

The Dragas report estimated that if no displacement occurred related to the Bristol casino – if every dollar spent was brand-new money – then the casino would add $88.5 million to the local gross domestic product annually. Factoring in a likely level of displacement, that becomes $66.4 million.

The 2019 JLARC report found that the biggest beneficiaries from casino visits – aside from the casinos themselves – tend to be budget hotels for customers who want less expensive accommodations, and gas stations that cater to customers buying fuel for their drive.  

Only a small portion of casino customer spending occurs at businesses outside of the casino, the study said. A majority of estimated new local tax revenue associated with the state’s casinos would be generated by the casino developments themselves, rather than from additional spending by casino customers at other local businesses, the study found. 

The Bristol developers point out, though, that while everyone refers to the project as “the casino,” once the full complex opens in 2024 it will actually be as much a music venue as a gaming center, with an amphitheater and a Hard Rock Live that will host concerts and other entertainment. 

Hard Rock’s long history with the music industry made it a particularly good fit for Bristol, Eige said. In fact, he said, he suspects that it contributed to local voters’ support.

“I think in part because they understand the totality of this project – it’s much more than just a casino on the side of a road,” he said.

In 1927, Bristol was the site of what would become known as the “Big Bang” of modern country music: the Bristol Sessions. Over the course of almost two weeks that summer, a visiting record producer recorded acts including future superstars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, setting the stage for a broad commercialization of the genre.

In 1998, Congress designated Bristol as the “Birthplace of Country Music” in recognition of the Bristol Sessions.

Today, murals and business names – like The Sessions Hotel – celebrate the region’s music heritage. Bristol has hosted the annual Rhythm & Roots Festival for more than 20 years, and downtown, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, stands several blocks from the site of the 1927 recording sessions.

“There’s going to be a lot of synergy to be had in the world of music between Hard Rock and the city,” Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, predicted.

Kent agreed. 

“The economy of our region is totally in transformation,” he said. The United Company, which started life decades ago as a coal mining interest, is a microcosm of that in its efforts to diversify, he said. “And Bristol, separate and apart from us, has already been going down the road of diversification, and particularly into the entertainment sphere.” 

He sees Bristol reliving some of its early days, with its renewed focus on the region’s music. He hopes the Hard Rock will help the city to facilitate that – to “reestablish its roots once again,” he said. 

* * *

Charlene Mullins can see the Catherine Street traffic light from her hair salon, on the other side of Gate City Highway from the mall.

She wonders what traffic will look like when there’s a big show at the amphitheater, or when multiple venues at the Hard Rock are hosting simultaneous events. 

Even more, she wonders if she’ll be around to see for herself.

Mullins and her business partner opened Sugar Salon here three years ago, after the salon’s previous home went up for sale. She estimates that they’ve put about $20,000 worth of upgrades into the building.

Now she’s afraid that the casino will make nearby real estate so much more valuable that property owners like her landlord will be tempted to sell.

“We only rent the building, so now we’re looking at, are we going to be homeless again?” she asked.

The owner of the building, a local doctor, didn’t respond to a message left at his medical practice.

Even if they’re able to stay, Mullins doesn’t think the salon will get much of a boost from the casino. She already has a stable base of clients, many of whom live in the neighborhood. Mullins herself lives two blocks away and has already seen two nearby houses turned into short-term rentals.

“There’ll be nothing for us from this casino, as far as business,” she said. “It’ll just be the headache of traffic, and are we going to be sold or not sold.” 

She didn’t vote for the casino in the referendum, she said. She has grandkids, takes in foster kids, just adopted a child. “I don’t want a bunch of drama,” she said. “Am I against it? No. You can do what you want to do on your time.” She just thinks the mall site is too close to residential neighborhoods.

“People might love it until it’s in your backyard,” she said.

She wonders whether the city will provide any kind of financial assistance to businesses that are displaced by casino-related development. Eads said he’s not aware of any discussions about how, or even whether, to do that.

“This is what capitalism is all about,” he said. “You have opportunities to make significant changes in your community with economic development projects, and sometimes there are unfortunate instances where current landowners decide to capitalize on the fact that their property values have increased significantly. If they do so, that’s really out of the city’s control.” 

He said he hopes that business owners will find a way to take advantage of the increased traffic – that they will learn how to market themselves to casino visitors.

“Because we’re not going to have this opportunity again, with this type of economic development project,” he said.

Adam Trotter opened Lucky Lady Gold & Jewelry Exchange last summer in a small shopping center near the casino site. He was only able to negotiate a two-year lease, but he said the risk was worth it to be close to the casino. Photo by Megan Schanbel

Just across the parking lot from Sugar Salon is Lucky Lady Gold & Jewelry Exchange, a shop that buys and sells jewelry. 

Adam Trotter opened it in August, six months after he first noticed the construction at the mall site. He was only able to get a two-year lease, but he decided the risk was worth it to be so close to the casino.

He said his landlord – the same doctor who owns the Sugar Salon property – indicated that he wasn’t interested in selling the property.

Trotter said he wouldn’t blame the owner for considering high-dollar offers. But there’s a lot of other buildable land nearby, he said, which could take some of the pressure off. And with financing as expensive as it is right now, he just doesn’t spend much time worrying about being displaced.

“Does it concern me? Not that much,” he said.

Brian McDavid lives in Johnson City but owns three short-term rentals in Bristol. The newest one, which he’s named Lucky Lady, backs up to the casino site. The surrounding neighborhood has seen multiple homes sell in the last year and a half. Photo by Megan Schnabel

A few blocks away on Veda Drive, Brian McDavid was clearing brush and watering plants in the yard of the four-bedroom, two-bath house he bought about a year ago and had just finished converting to an Airbnb.

McDavid, who lives in Kingsport, has three short-term rentals in Bristol now, and his son has another two, all because of the casino.

He paused to survey the neighborhood, pointing out which homes had recently sold, and which ones were being converted to short-term rentals. 

“There’s a lot of renovations and remodeling going on on this particular street,” he said. He gestured toward the backyard, which offers a sweeping view of the new casino site. “With this opening up, I think everyone’s expecting there to be quite a bit of business and people coming to town.”

As homeowners look to decamp to quieter neighborhoods, aspiring Airbnb hosts who want to capitalize on the anticipated millions of casino visitors have been happy to snap up the houses they’re leaving behind, at prices well above the assessed values.

“The housing market is tough right now,” said Misty Clarke, the Realtor who recently saw her Veda Drive listing go under contract in just two days. “There’s not a lot of inventory, and there’s a lot of buyers. I have seen as many as 18 offers on one house.” 

That can’t all be attributed to the casino, of course; Bristol, like much of the country, has seen housing demand, and prices, skyrocket. Eads said a lack of new housing construction that goes back two decades has been a primary driver in the crunch.

But as owner-occupied houses and rental units are turned into Airbnbs to satisfy lodging demand, the shortage will become more acute.

The shortage extends to rental housing, said Melissa Hall, president of the Bristol Tennessee/Virginia Association of Realtors. She’s heard about waiting lists for apartments; her own daughter had to wait six months to get a rental in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee.

Eads said there are a couple of large housing developments that are in the early stages on the Tennessee side of the city, and he expects at least one, if not two, to take shape on the Virginia side of Bristol. Surrounding Washington County could see growth, too, he said.

The city recently sent letters to property owners around Veda Drive, asking for opinions about whether the neighborhood should be rezoned to allow for commercial development. Several rezoning requests – including the one for the 30-room hotel – had already come in, said Jay Detrick, the city’s director of community development and planning.

He expects this part of the city to be a big focus of upcoming revisions to Bristol’s comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2017. 

“It’s not just the casino,” he said. “It’s all of what could pop up around it – the new development that we are anticipating in that area, and even in other areas.

“Five to 10 years from now, I think the area will look very different, on Gate City Highway. How will it look, I’m not sure. But there’ll be a lot of different things going on out here.”

* * *

Much of the talk about the casino project has focused on how it will affect the city of Bristol, on both sides of the state line.

But some see a potential for the larger region to capitalize on the potential for increased tourist traffic. 

“We don’t want them to just stay in Bristol – venture out to Abingdon or Jonesboro,” Hester said. “There’s so many places to go.”

She hopes that the casino will encourage visits from people who wouldn’t otherwise have come to the Bristol region. Then they’ll see just how much the area has to offer – including, but not limited to, its NASCAR and music heritage.

“Obviously a lot of folks think Roanoke is as far south as Virginia comes, or even Richmond,” she said. “But we are so blessed in this area that we live in. It’s beautiful here. We have beautiful four seasons, we have a lower cost of living, we have outdoor activities – hiking, biking, fishing, you name it. We’re rich in natural resources and so many activities for people to do. … Once folks come and explore our area, they really see what we have to offer.”

Eads said that any time he went to Richmond to talk to legislators about the casino, the conversations were about Southwest Virginia as a whole. 

“Southwest Virginia has been hurting economically for years,” he said. “We needed a catalyst to help us get things moving again. And I think Hard Rock is just one piece of that puzzle.” 

He hopes that the new job opportunities will give young people a reason to stay, or a reason to come back with their families. He thinks the region could capitalize on the casino to recruit other types of businesses that support the gaming industry.

“We can really use this to our advantage if we do it right and really promote what Bristol and Southwest Virginia is about,” he said.

In fact, a provision of the state law that made the Bristol casino possible also gave it a unique status as a regional economic driver.

The legislation created the Regional Improvement Commission, a revenue-sharing mechanism that’s unique to the Bristol casino project. Under this provision, the portion of the state gaming tax that would otherwise be earmarked for the host city will instead be shared among the 14 localities of the Bristol transportation district, which runs from Bland County to Lee County.

Using the JLARC estimate of $130 million in annual gaming revenues, that pot would equate to about $7.8 million, or $557,000 for each of the localities. The money can be used in three broad spending areas: education, public safety and transportation.

“We’d said all along that we wanted the casino, if it was approved by the voters, to be something that lifted the entire region economically,” said O’Quinn, who, with then-Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, introduced the initial Bristol casino legislation in Richmond.

“You can’t have one locality booming and the locality next door struggling,” he said. “It’s all going to bleed over and everybody’s going to feel the negative impact. If there’s a way that everybody can partner together and make good things happen, it seems like that’s something that people in our area have been willing to do.”

Eads said Bristol agreed to the idea.

“Southwest Virginia’s unique in the fact that we’re losing population, and we’re unique in the fact that economic development projects of significant size are relatively hard to come by in our region,” he said.

“So in order to help other communities across our area that need significant financial assistance, we chose to help out our region. Our region is going to be stronger working together than working against each other, and this is just one of those opportunities where we can all come together in Southwest Virginia and hopefully use the gaming tax for the good of the region.”

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at or 540-819-4969.