Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe said Tuesday that it’s willing to fast-track its planned casino in Norfolk by opening it under commercial gambling laws instead of waiting on federal approvals for a tribal casino.
The tribe is modifying its plans in an attempt to be involved in current General Assembly deliberations about possible casinos in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth. The federal process for a tribal casino could take years, raising the possibility that the tribe’s project wouldn’t be ready to proceed until after other casinos are up and running.
Two lawmakers — Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack — will introduce legislation to allow the Pamunkey tribe to operate a commercial casino.
“As a federally recognized tribe with both the right to engage in gaming activities and the financial backing to make it happen, we believe that if the commonwealth is ready to authorize gaming, our project should be part of it,” Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray said in a statement.
“To consider other projects without taking into consideration the Pamunkey casino in Norfolk and the potential of additional Pamunkey casinos in Virginia would fail to take a much-needed comprehensive approach to gaming.”
A tribe spokesman said the bill would require a local voter referendum, just like the legislation opening the door to casinos in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth. The Pamunkey legislation would apply only to cities with populations of 200,000 people or more, which would be Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Richmond.
The tribe will continue to work to secure land for casinos and other projects, a process that requires federal authorization.
In a news release from the tribe, Knight and Lewis characterized the issue as a matter of fairness.
“We can’t ignore their rights under federal law by leaving them out of the current discussions about gaming in Virginia,” Knight said. “This bill will maintain their much-deserved seat at the table and put them on equal footing with the others who want to open a commercial casino.”
Lewis said the Pamunkey tribe has endured “significant challenges” in its decades-long push for federal recognition, which the tribe received in 2015.
“They are moving forward to bring a casino to Hampton Roads through the federal process, but if the commonwealth is ready for casinos now, then the Pamunkey ought to have the right to participate,” Lewis said.
At a news conference Monday, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, a sponsor of the commercial casino legislation, said she saw no reason Hampton Roads couldn’t have multiple casinos.
“There’s room at the table for everybody,” Lucas said.
Last month, the tribe announced that it was negotiating with Norfolk to build a $700 million casino on 20 acres of land on the Elizabeth River near the city’s minor league baseball stadium.
Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough, who has an extensive résumé in the tribal gaming industry, has partnered with the Pamunkey tribe as its financial backer.
The Pamunkey tribe, which has 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.
Pursuing a casino under commercial laws could also help the tribe avoid having to prove the potential casino site in Norfolk was part of its ancestral territory. The Nansemond tribe has objected to the Pamunkey claim of historical ties to Norfolk. In a letter sent to Gov. Ralph Northam this week, the Pamunkey tribe said that it was “confident” it could meet all the requirements to acquire the Norfolk site.