Norfolk Casino Project Delayed Again as Developer Rescinds Application

The Norfolk casino project that city voters authorized through a November 2020 local ballot referendum remains just a dream for the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, the federal tribe that the city partnered with for its casino development.

An artist’s rendering of the first development phase of HeadWaters Resort & Casino in Norfolk, Va. on the Elizabeth River. The development team behind HeadWaters pulled its application this week. (Image: HeadWaters Resort & Casino)

Virginia lawmakers three years ago passed legislation that allows five cities, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Bristol, Danville, and Richmond, to permit a lone commercial casino resort with local voter support. Norfolk city officials partnered with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and gaming industry billionaire Jon Yarbrough on a $500 million undertaking called HeadWaters Resort & Casino. Norfolk voters signed off on the proposal with 65% support.

The project has since undergone repeated delays and several design changes. The project initially proposed opening a temporary casino inside the Harbor Park minor league baseball stadium adjacent to where HeadWaters is to be built. But, after legal concerns were raised about whether a temporary gaming facility can operate there, the Pamunkeys and Yarbrough went back to the drawing table.

In September, the developers announced a temporary casino on the actual construction site nearest Park Avenue and Interstate 264. Then, earlier this month, the project was again amended to do away with the temporary casino idea in favor of moving the project forward in two separate phases.

The first phase was to include a 90,000-square-foot building featuring a casino, sports bar and restaurant, and 1,200-space parking garage. The second phase was to include a 300-room hotel and typical resort amenities.

Project Yanked

The Pamunkeys and Yarbrough are seeking approval from the Norfolk Architectural Review Board, which is the first step in a commercial endeavor that’s located in one of the city’s historic districts being approved. The Architectural Review Board’s recommendations are used by the Norfolk Planning Commission in determining whether a project is issued a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA).

The Architectural Review Board was expected to further consider the HeadWaters plan during its meeting on Monday night, but the application was abruptly pulled from the board’s agenda after the developers said city officials requested a one-on-one meeting today, July 25.

We are solely focused on getting this project off the ground and look forward to making that happen as soon as possible,” said Robert Gray, chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. “We remain committed to working closely with the city and our neighbors to make this the greatest resort and casino in Virginia.”

The tribal release said the application being removed comes “after the receipt by the Tribe of a letter from the City dated July 14 which contradicted their prior direction given to the Tribe and its development team in a March 1, 2023, letter from the City. After receiving the July 14 letter, the Tribe responded with a letter noting the conflicts in the City’s approach and requested a meeting to get clarity from the City on its proposed path to acquire the land and begin construction.”

The roughly 13.5-acre plot of land next to Harbor Park remains owned by the city. In 2019, the tribe reached a deal with the city to acquire the land for $10 million, should it be zoned for the casino build.

Status Unclear

It’s unknown who in the city government will be meeting with the casino team on Tuesday. The Virginia-Pilot said efforts to gain comment on the issue from Mayor Kenny Alexander were unsuccessful.

Norfolk is one of four Virginia cities that have authorized a casino.

Rivers Casino Portsmouth, the first permanent casino to open in the state, commenced operations in January. Permanent casino resorts are also under construction in Danville and Bristol. As they’re being built, Caesars Virginia in Danville and Hard Rock Bristol opened temporary casinos where the resorts are being constructed.

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