Pamunkey Tribe Still Focused on Casino Goal

A glimpse inside a luxury casino resort.

Published December 21, 2018

Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe are still pushing forward to open a tribal casino resort in the region despite facing the cold shoulder from locals.

The tribe, led by Chief Robert Gray, have been focused on opening the state’s first casino for the past two years, even going so far as to purchase 600 acres of land in New Kent County across Interstate 64. They’ve also partnered with a “billionaire” industry developer, hailing from Tennessee, who is likely to be named as project manager when or indeed if the development finally gets underway.

A Long History

With a history stretching back thousands of years, the Pamunkey have had a relationship with the state (and former colony) of Virginia for centuries. They are presently the only tribe in the commonwealth to have been awarded sovereignty and federal recognition via an administrative process, as opposed to the route of congressional action that most tribes have used. The tribe is also one of the lucky few to have had their vital records preserved over the centuries, including a 341-year-old treaty with the Commonwealth that requires them to gift a deer carcass as “tax tribute” to the governor every year.

Unlike tribes such as the Monacan Nation, who received federal recognition through acts of Congress, the Pamunkey have managed to retain their rights to open casino gambling venues. In much the same way that North-eastern tribes have set up lucrative casino businesses and gained financial independence, Chief Gray’s tribe hopes to become self-sufficient by running such an enterprise. Revenue from the casino would go towards paying for the educational, health care and business needs of the tribe, and the resort would become the location of tribal offices and a commemorative museum.

Dissent in New Kent

However, the Pamunkey’s proposal has met with some dissent among residents of New Kent County. Earlier in 2018, residents and county officials gathered for a public meeting about the plans to locate a tribal casino in the area. Unfortunately, representatives of the tribe were not invited to attend, and due to common misconceptions about the casino industry, attendees of the meeting became quite hostile about the proposed venture.

In response, Chief Gray told reporters at the Executive Mansion annual ceremony in November that the New Kent site is “just one option,” clarifying that the tribe will only go “where we are welcome.” Theoretically, the tribe could open their casino anywhere in their territory, which includes Richmond and Jamestown.

A Changing Industry

The significant advances recently made in casino gaming technology means that opening a traditional casino is not quite what it was 10, or even five, years ago. With every passing year, land-based casinos face increasing competition from the many online platforms that operate on a global scale. The gambling industry will likely reach revenue in excess of $500 billion by the end of 2018, with a significant portion of that generating from iGaming counterparts.

 

iGaming, which incorporates online casino gaming, sports betting and online poker, is a hugely popular activity and much more appealing to some demographics than taking a trip to the local casino. These days, casino enthusiasts can play games on their laptops, tablets and even their mobile phones, with such games featuring everything from virtual reality to blockchain technology.

Benefiting the Tribe and the Locality

Should the Pamunkey open their first casino venture in New Kent, it will form part of a developing gambling scene within the county. Currently, it is home to the only horse racing track in the state of Virginia — Colonial Downs — which, itself, is due to reopen under new ownership. There are also numerous off-site gaming parlors throughout the state, and a lottery has been running in the region for over 25 years.

This tribal casino would be the first of its kind to open in Virginia, with the $700 million development including a 1,200-room luxury hotel, entertainment theatre and over 10 restaurant and dining options. The tribe has also pledged to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with the locality and state of the final location of its casino, with the intention of supporting the costs of making improvements to its infrastructure and emergency services. The tribe will also file applications to the U.S. Department of the Interior to place the casino site and any other land purchases made by the tribe into a federal trust fund. Doing so will ensure that they become part of the Pamunkey reservation, making them free from taxes (both state and local) and zoning laws.

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