Photo courtesy of Bristol Casino.

Virginia’s first casino, the temporary facility in Bristol, drew 1.2 million people from across the U.S. and a number of other countries and paid out $92 million in jackpots in its inaugural year, which has been deemed a success by casino and city officials.

Bristol Casino first anniversary celebration

The celebration Saturday of the first year of Bristol’s temporary casino will include $100,000 in drawings that will take place every hour from noon to 9 p.m. Three guests will be drawn to win $2,500 in free slot or table play and one person will win $25,000 at 10 p.m. The drawings are only open to Unity Members, who belong to a loyalty club at the casino.

The entertainment will be DJ Jessie D from 2-4 p.m., Tuatha Dea from 4:30-6 p.m., David Eggar & Friends from 7-9 p.m., and The Bachelor Boys from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

You wouldn’t know it yet from the surrounding neighborhood, which appears to be mostly unchanged in the 12 months since the casino opened. But city and casino officials expect that to change with the opening next July of the full, permanent facility, whose anticipated cost now tops $520 million, an increase from the original estimate of $400 million. It will include a hotel and amphitheater with lots of entertainment, more restaurants and food options, shopping, a spa and pool.

A celebration is planned for Saturday, the one-year anniversary of the opening, amid much fanfare, of the Bristol Casino, future home of Hard Rock, at the former mall site off Gate City Highway in west Bristol. Money giveaways and music are planned throughout the day.

“It’s just been very overwhelming when it comes to how much we feel a part of the family and the community,” said Allie Evangelista, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol. “We couldn’t be happier with our first year together and we’re looking forward to opening the doors next year and welcoming everybody to a brand new facility.”

Mayor Neal Osborne looks at the temporary casino’s first year in terms of two things: revenue and construction of the permanent casino. Both are going well and meeting expectations, he said.

“It’s just been a very overall successful first year,” he said. 

Construction is underway in front of the former Belk building at the casino property. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Construction continues

The middle and front portions of the casino property are a busy construction zone these days, with heavy machinery and lots of truck traffic, dust and noise.

The groundbreaking was held Dec. 7. The work remains on schedule and the opening of the full facility is still expected at this time next year.

The project will temporarily employ up to 1,000 construction workers, casino officials said.

Much of the work that’s been done has been underground; the foundation has been completed and the former Sears and JCPenney buildings, which were originally planned to be part of the permanent facility, have been demolished, according to Evangelista. Using those buildings as part of the design would not have allowed for construction of the type of quality building that they wanted and that’s expected at a Hard Rock property, she said.

Those changes, and the escalating costs and inflation of recent months, led to the increase in the expected cost of the project, she explained.

Steel is now being delivered to the site and construction progress will soon be more visible, she added.

“In just a few weeks, the community will be able to drive by Gate City Highway and see the projects going up,” Evangelista said.

An artist’s rendering of the permanent casino, which is under construction now and is expected to open in July 2024. Courtesy of Hard Rock.

The numbers for the total square footage of the casino project are still being finalized, but the gaming floor will go to 92,000 square feet. And there will be more than 1,500 slot machines and 75 gaming tables along with a poker room, which clients have been requesting since the day the temporary casino opened, she said.

By comparison, the current casino covers 30,000 square feet and features more than 900 slots, 29 tables and a sportsbook.

The permanent facility will offer multiple dining options, including a signature Hard Rock Café, a fine dining restaurant called Council Oak Steaks and Seafood, and an Asian noodle bar, Evangelista said.

A large dining hall will feature a number of “grab-and-go” options, and a Constant Grind, which is a gourmet coffee shop, she added.

The permanent casino will also offer a larger area for patrons who don’t smoke; it will be closed off from the smoking area and will feature higher ceilings. Although the current facility has separate smoking and non-smoking areas, smoke is still detectable in all areas of the casino, including the bar and two restaurants.

Allie Evangelista. Courtesy of Hard Rock.

Evangelista acknowledged that many of those who gamble also smoke, saying gambling, smoking and drinking seem to go hand in hand.

Studies have shown that slot machines in smoking areas make significantly more money than those in non-smoking areas, and when a casino opens in a state that allows smoking, the revenues are much higher, she said.

The Hard Rock Hotel, which will face Gate City Highway, will have 303 rooms, and the complex also will include a Hard Rock Live entertainment venue.

Meanwhile, a traffic study is underway to see what changes might be needed to handle the expected traffic from the casino complex.

It is being conducted for the casino by Kimley-Horn and is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.

One change that will definitely be made, according to Evangelista, is a third entrance to the property.

A strip shopping center across Gate City Highway from the Kroger and near the casino has been refurbished and is leasing spaces. Photo by Susan Cameron.

A neighborhood on the verge of change

One year after the opening of the temporary casino, there are no real visible changes to the neighborhood surrounding it. City officials say they’ve had a lot of interest from hotels and restaurants, but nothing is definite at this point.

City leaders and casino officials have said they expect more growth and changes to come closer to the time when the permanent casino opens next summer and afterward.

Still, both sides of Bristol, which straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state line, have seen some effects from the casino, according to Mack Chapman, an economic development specialist for the city of Bristol, Virginia.

The Bristol Casino, by the numbers

In its first year, the casino:

  • Posted nearly $150 million in adjusted gross revenues from July 8 to May 31
  • Paid out $92 million in jackpots
  • Added 63 slot machines, for a total of over 900
  • Added eight table games, for a total of 29
  • Paid $25.9 million in state taxes
  • Donated more than $448,000 to local nonprofits
  • Served 185,973 guests in its two restaurants and bar, where 39,295 pizzas and nearly 180,000 beers were sold.
  • Processed 14,096 employment applications

Source: The Bristol Casino, future home of Hard Rock; the Virginia Lottery

Real estate prices have risen significantly in the area around the casino site as people try to take advantage of interest in an area of the city that hasn’t had much in many years. The neighborhood was once a bustling center of activity due to the popularity of the Bristol Mall over several decades.

One of the largest available sites is across the highway from the casino at a property on Catherine Street that once housed Crowley Foods, a dairy business, and most recently was a glass recycling business called Nulife Glass. Its real estate listing, which prominently features its proximity to the casino site, puts a $9 million price tag on the 13.6 acres.

The city’s property assessment puts the land and building value at around $1.52 million.

The property last sold in March 2015 for $190,000, a fraction of either the current listing price or the assessment.

Another property that recently sold for a price well above what the city says it’s worth is at 780 Gate City Highway, which is at the corner of Veda Drive, the residential street that runs next to the north side of the casino property.

The one-level brick house, currently occupied by Rise Dispensary Bristol, a medical marijuana dispensary, sold for $2 million in July 2022. The city’s current property assessment says the land and building are worth $422,000.

One project that is moving forward about five minutes away from the casino is a 29-unit apartment complex on Bristol View Drive. Chapman said it is under construction now and is expected to be completed in about a year.

There are questions, however, about whether another project, a proposed 30-room boutique hotel planned for the corner of Veda Drive closest to the casino, will move forward. The owner of the property, Soft Rock Properties LLC, sought and received a rezoning of the property from the city council in March 2022.

But city officials haven’t heard from them since, according to Chapman, who said they do not have good contact information for the company.

Two other hotel projects are coming to the Exit 5 and Exit 7 areas of the city.

In November 2022, the city council approved rezoning about 45 acres near the casino, including areas along Veda Drive, Everett Street, Gate City Highway and Andover Drive, from R-2 single-family and two-family residential to B3 general business. The new zoning allows for more uses for the properties but also allows homes to remain as they are.

“We want to be careful of those neighborhoods. We don’t want to negatively affect their quality of life,” Osborne said.

Improvements have been made to some existing properties near the casino. A strip shopping center across from Kroger on Gate City Highway has been refurbished and a number of spaces are for lease, according to a sign on the property.

One tenant, Crystal Luxury Spa, opened about a month ago, according to owner Larry Grubbs, who said he chose the site solely because it’s so close to the casino. The business offers massages, body wraps and scrubs, facials, aromatherapy and acupressure.

Grubbs said he believes many of those who gamble at the casino will be interested in getting a massage or body wrap, and he thinks his prices will be more reasonable than those at a casino spa.

He said he also owns Sidetrack Tobacco shop on State Street in downtown Bristol. Business there has increased, which he attributes to the opening of the casino.

Another business operating within sight of the casino is Sugar Salon. Co-owner Charlene Mullins said there is definitely more vehicle and foot traffic in the area, but that hasn’t meant any new business for the salon, which has regular customers, she said.

Her biggest worry is that her building might be sold as properties around the casino become more sought-after.

But she is also concerned about several of her clients, who she said have lost a lot of money gambling at the casino. One woman sold her house and then lost thousands of dollars of the money she made, Mullins said.

The casino also affects her personally because she lives about two blocks away. She said she’s noticed an increase in foot traffic in the area and she feels less safe in the house she’s lived in for 15 years, although she said she wasn’t aware of an increase in crime.

Both city officials and those at the casino said there have been no issues with crime, although police and EMS have been called to the property just as they would with any business, according to Osborne and City Manager Randy Eads.

The mayor attributed that to the casino’s security and to the city’s decision to dedicate a police officer to the site. 

Taxes and philanthropy

Over the last 12 months, the casino has contributed more than $448,000 to nonprofit organizations, according to casino officials, who say community involvement is part of the Hard Rock brand.

Casino employees, who are called team members, have donated $155,000 of their own money to local nonprofits, Evangelista said.

Before the casino opened, those involved talked about their desire to work with as many local businesses as possible. Currently, more than 100 local vendors provide everything from fudge to landscaping and dry cleaning. So far, the casino has spent $53 million on local products, Evangelista said.

The casino has paid $25.9 million in state taxes since last July. According to Chapman, it has also paid more than $100,000 in real estate taxes to the city.

And through a unique revenue-sharing agreement that was the idea of the casino’s founders, 14 localities, two cities and 12 counties in Southwest Virginia, including Bristol, will also benefit financially from the casino.

The Bristol Casino held its grand opening on July 8, 2022. Photo by Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

According to monthly revenue reports from July through May issued by the Virginia Lottery, which oversees gaming in the state, each locality is now set to receive more than $618,000. That will increase with the June report, which is expected to be released in mid-July.

If gaming continues at the same pace, each locality is expected to receive around $700,000 for the first year of the casino’s operation.

From July 8 through May 31, the casino posted nearly $150 million in adjusted gross revenue, which is wagers minus winnings. The biggest month was December, when adjusted gross revenue of $14.87 million was posted. The slowest month was July, with an AGR of $11.71 million, but that was only a partial month since the casino didn’t open until July 8.

The month with the next lowest total was November, when the AGR was $12.65 million.

The total adjusted gross revenue is more than was forecast in a 2019 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which was undertaken prior to the state’s approval of casinos. The report states that the proposed Bristol Casino was expected to generate $130 million in total net gaming revenue per year.

Those numbers were forecast for the full casino rather than a temporary facility. The study was also done before Hard Rock was announced as the operator.

Time for training

In addition to the money made and taxes paid at the current facility, Evangelista said the last year provided the casino with the luxury of time to train employees, from the dealers to the chefs and servers at the restaurants.

Six dealer training events have been held and more training is planned over the next year before the full opening. Initially, 600 full-time and part-time employees were hired and an additional 600 will be hired over the coming year, with most happening next spring, Evangelista said. She added that 90% of employees hired have no casino experience.

“It’s going to help us open the doors next year in a much better prepared way than if we just went straight to the permanent casino,” she said.


Correction 10:45 a.m. July 7: Bristol Casino employees have donated $155,000 to local nonprofits, according to casino management. The amount was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...