By Dave Ongie
The Hard Rock executives who were on hand for the grand opening of the Bristol Casino last month tempered their talk about Virginia’s first casino by saying, “It’s only temporary. The best is yet to come.”
For Bristol Virginia Mayor Anthony Farnum, however, July 8 is a day that will hold a permanent place in his heart.
“This is the largest economic development project in the history of Bristol, Virginia,” Farnum said prior to the ribbon cutting that served as a ceremonial opening for the 30,000-square-foot casino that now occupies a portion of the former Bristol Mall building. “This opens up a lot of doors for us. This is a day we’ll remember forever.”
The ribbon cutting ceremony detailed the long and winding road that led to the opening of the first casino in the state in Bristol. Everyone from lobbyists to legislators received a round of applause, as did Jason Eige and Martin Kent of the United Company for the three years they spent in Richmond drumming up support for the idea. Elected officials in Bristol Virginia were thanked for their support, as were the voters who overwhelmingly approved the casino in a referendum vote.
Of course, Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy were the masterminds behind the project, and Hard Rock COO Jon Lucas credited them for helping build the local support that ultimately led to Hard Rock in Bristol.
“It has been a great partnership, and we anticipate a long relationship with Jim and Clyde and also Martin Kent and Jason Eige,” Lucas said.
At 2 p.m. on July 8, the casino opened for business and the general public got their first look at a casino that features 870 slots, 21 tables, a sportsbook and both a sit-down restaurant as well as a grab-and-go pizzeria. Despite adverse hiring conditions, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol President Allie Evangelista said the company reached its goal by hiring 600 employees, who will keep the casino running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“We’re very pleased with the results,” Evangelista said. “We’re at approximately 600 team members, which is where we wanted to be. We do have several dozen team members we’re waiting to process right now because we did a hiring event not long ago and it takes a little while to join us because we’re regulated by Virginia.”
In a joint statement, McGlothlin and Stacy said the jobs created in the temporary casino are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the positive economic impact the property will have for the entire region. “We are glad that the project is having an immediate impact in boosting Bristol’s economy by bringing in at least 600 new, good-paying jobs to the city. This is only a start, as the project will generate even more jobs when the permanent casino opens. These benefits extend across Southwest Virginia as communities receive additional tax revenue from the project. Local businesses in the Tri-Cities will see an economic development boost from increased tourism visitation and spending.”
Evangelista noted the economic benefit that is already being generated by the casino. Blackbird Bakery in Bristol is providing desserts for the restaurants located in the casino, and the Southern Churn – located on State Street – has fudge for sale in the gift shop. Additionally, a dry cleaner in Kingsport has been contracted to clean employees’ clothing, local contractors and subcontractors were involved in the construction of the temporary casino and several other local businesses have been hired to do maintenance and landscaping around the property.
Of the five cities in Virginia that received approval to start casino projects, Bristol had the largest decline in population. Having worked in seven different states, Evangelista believes Hard Rock has the potential to turn things around.
“I’ve been in different states all over the country,” she said. “I have seen what the gaming industry will do for small towns. Every one of those towns have evolved and grown because of the casino industry.”