Editorial: Casino could spark bright future for Bristol

Tuesday 10th December 2019

The largest of the Tri-Cities a century ago, Bristol TN/VA has lagged its sister communities in both population and economics for decades. But that's about to change -- at least, that's the cities' hope.

It started with The Pinnacle, a 240-acre retail complex on the Tennessee side that opened five years ago with 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, hotel and office, and recreation space -- the largest such development between Roanoke and Knoxville. It was a $200 million investment that returns that much every year in sales to the local economy, on top of 2,000 jobs. And it's still growing.

But that major boost to the economy of Bristol, Tennessee, may be duplicated by what's coming in Bristol, Virginia, and what might come with it.

The rumors became official last year when Jim McGlothlin, CEO of The United Company, formerly United Coal, and partner Clyde Stacy, CEO of Par Ventures, announced plans for a proposed casino at the site of the Bristol Mall, which Par Ventures acquired in June of 2018 for $2.6 million.

This March, legislation to allow casinos to operate in specific distressed Virginia cities was approved by the Virginia General Assembly. Last month, a report required by the legislation found that the casinos would have a positive impact on the state. The report said Bristol's proposed casino would create more than 1,000 jobs and $130 million in annual revenue. Also last month, McGlothlin and Stacy announced that they had signed one of the top casino operators available, Hark Rock International.

The last pieces come next year when the Virginia General Assembly takes final action on allowing casinos in five cities, which likely will be approved given the potential for significant tax return. And Bristol, Virginia, residents must approve a referendum allowing the casino, also seen as a given considering what the project will deliver.

The region benefits from these developments, but over time Bristol could emerge -- for the first time -- as the leader in job growth, tax revenue and eventually, even population.

It looks very much like Bristol, Virginia, will get its casino. But will restaurants and more retail and new recreational activities follow, creating more new jobs and momentum that cannot be stopped? Maybe; maybe not.

Whether casinos have a positive effect on local economic growth is a mixed bag, according to a host of studies.

An article at citylab.com shows why casino-driven development is a roll of the dice: "The typical life cycle of a casino-driven boom and bust can be seen in places like Tunica County, Mississippi, formerly dubbed 'America's Ethiopia' because of its deep-seated poverty. The town became a flashy casino destination in the 1990s and at first the casinos over hired. But of the hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenues, just 2.5 percent was used for social programs. The poverty rate remained high. Then, in 2014, the largest casino of Tunica's nine closed, ending 1,300 jobs. The jobless rate grew to 12.3 percent."

The headline on an article in The Atlantic: "A Good Way to Wreck a Local Economy: Build Casinos."

There are other such articles easily found with a simple web search. And it would be easy to point to the Tunica boom-then-bust scenario as a possible future for Bristol.

But the difference is where each city started. Tunica was already poverty stricken and sits alone on the Mississippi River. Bristol, while it has struggled, is far from poverty stricken. And it is positioned as part of the larger and more vibrant Tri-Cities, a characteristic that lends support to growth with a wider economic and population base.

No doubt the focus will remain on the Bristols for some time as these developments progress. We see a bright future, rather than a Tunica downturn.

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