Portsmouth City Council Approves Rivers Casino, But Hotel Debate Heated

Posted on: May 26, 2021, 09:59h. 

Last updated on: May 26, 2021, 11:16h.

The Portsmouth City Council this week approved rezoning 57 acres of land located just south of Interstate 264 between McClean Street and Victory Boulevard. The decision clears the way for Rush Street Gaming to move forward with its $300 million casino resort in the Virginia city.

Portsmouth casino Virginia gambling
The Portsmouth City Council holds a virtual meeting earlier this month. The council this week rezoned land in the city to allow a casino to be built there. (Image: Portsmouth City Council)

Rush Street Gaming, a Chicago-based casino operator that owns and operates Rivers casino resorts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Des Plaines, Il., and Schenectady, N.Y., has partnered with Portsmouth to utilize a gaming and entertainment destination as an economic spark for the area. 

Portsmouth was one of four cities in Virginia that approved a local ballot referendum during the 2020 election to authorize commercial casino gambling. Rush says Rivers Casino Portsmouth will require 1,400 construction jobs and 1,300 permanent positions thereafter.

Rush will pay $10 million to the city to acquire the 57-acre site, which is currently undeveloped grassland. The casino is expected to generate $16 million annually for the city by way of taxes from gaming, sales and use, hotel, property, and entertainment. 

Hotel Discussion

The Portsmouth City Council voted 5-2 to rezone the property. Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes and Councilman Mark Whitaker were in the minority.

Barnes’ opposition primarily stemmed from questions regarding the casino’s hotel. Under the agreement Rush has with the city, the hotel does not have to be built along with the gaming venue. 

Constructing the hotel must begin within four years of the Rivers casino opening. Rush must also begin hotel construction if its Portsmouth casino generates gross gaming revenue of $175 million in a single year, or $250 million over 24 months while Norfolk’s casino is also in operation. 

Rush representatives did not give Barnes a concrete answer as to when the company expected to begin hotel construction. 

Your job is to look out for the benefit of the casino. As council people, we’re supposed to look out for the city,” Barnes declared, as reported by The Virginian-Pilot. 

Rush Street Gaming Senior VP Mike Tobin countered that the casino is looking out for the city, too.

“We’re in this together,” Tobin stated. “I hope you believe we have a common interest here in making this the most successful casino in the state of Virginia.”

Nearby Competition

Portsmouth and Norfolk, two of the four Virginia cities that have authorized a casino, will be competing for the same market. Norfolk has teamed with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and billionaire Jon Yarbrough to build a $500 million waterfront casino resort on the Elizabeth River. 

The two casino sites are less than five miles apart by the way the crow flies. And though the locations are separated by the river, driving time is still under 15 minutes. 

The Norfolk casino plan calls for the immediate construction of a hotel with 300 rooms. Rush is more interested in getting its casino open before Norfolk’s in order to grab market share and sign players up for its rewards program. 

Rush adds that it will determine the size of its Portsmouth hotel and the style of the resort based on its initial clientele.