Portsmouth’s Rivers Casino is officially open, the smoke has settled, and the smart money is on the entertainment venue to significantly boost the city’s tax revenue, create family-sustaining jobs for the Coastal Virginia region, provide additional funds to support city revitalization efforts and infrastructure improvements, and make more resources available to small businesses that are launching and expanding in the city.
Now that the players and partners so integral to the project’s success have had the chance to catch their breath, we reached out to Brian Donahue, director of economic development for the City of Portsmouth, for a conversation with about Rivers Casino, its potential impact on the economy, and the prospects for additional growth as an entertainment destination.
CoVa BIZ: It’s been an interesting journey. Now that the casino has officially opened, what is your impression of how things have progressed since construction began?
Brian Donahue: I have to say that the public response to Rivers Casino has been overwhelmingly positive. Looking back just over a year since the project initially broke ground, I can share that the development process of the project was an extremely positive one as well. We were pleased with the speed at which the casino was brought to market, allowing it to be the first, newly constructed commercial gaming venue to open in Virginia. It’s certainly a tribute to the success of partnerships we’ve built along the way, and it’s an accomplishment of which we’re very proud.
A press release from 2019 touts River Casino’s location next to Tidewater Community College’s Portsmouth campus as an opportunity to develop a gaming and hospitality education program which would become a platform to launch careers in the industry. Any updates on that front?
Rivers Casino and TCC have developed a strong partnership that goes back to the early stages of the project. Following the announcement of Rivers’ plans to locate in Portsmouth, TCC was engaged with the Rivers team to discuss how the two could work together to advance workforce development opportunities. With its existing hospitality programs, TCC has historically created a pipeline of talent in the field for the region. This source of skilled workers was essential as Rivers worked to fill many of the 1,300 new positions created by the casino. TCC also assisted with hosting several hiring and training events in support of Rivers. I am confident that Rivers and TCC will continue to be both great partners and neighbors.
It’s been projected that Rivers will generate $16+ million in annual tax revenue for the city, and an additional $10 million from sales proceeds for the Entertainment District’s acreage. How will these additional funds be utilized?
Rivers Casino will provide significant long-term tax benefits to the citizens of the City of Portsmouth. The Portsmouth City Council will determine how the resulting new revenues will be dedicated through the city’s Operating Budget and Capital Improvements Plan. There are many priorities on the books, and these additional funds will allow Portsmouth to tackle more of the city’s needs than were previously able to be addressed. The proceeds from the sale of the land to Rivers Casino will be utilized by the Portsmouth Economic Development Authority (the property’s former owner) to support city revitalization efforts and provide resources for small businesses that are launching and expanding in the city.
Looking forward, how do you anticipate that the Rivers Casino complex will help boost the growth of an entertainment district destination? Anything you can share?
We expect that Rivers Casino will serve as a catalyst for additional economic development activity and investment in the entertainment district and beyond. We are already beginning to see an increase in interest along the Victory Boulevard corridor. I believe that we will find new restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues coming to the area soon. We also anticipate that the demand for additional hotel rooms in Portsmouth will grow. Rivers Casino has plans for a casino hotel similar to what it has developed in other markets, and we’re confident that with strong casino performance these plans will move forward quickly.
Rivers Casino has provided the City of Portsmouth with a much-needed economic boost, it has increased tourism, and in terms of job creation, the casino is still actively hiring for all positions. Its future as a vehicle to further stimulate economic growth seems bright. Hopes are high for a city and region betting on its success.
The Rivers Casino opening was not without controversy. As a gaming facility, the casino was granted an exception to Virginia’s indoor smoking ban, which generated some backlash and was a topic widely covered by local media. Rivers has proved responsive to feedback from guests and the community at large, modifying their smoking policy for the Portsmouth location as of press time for this publication. Approximately half of the gaming floor will now be designated as nonsmoking, including both slots and table games, and cigars and vaping are strictly prohibited. Signage has been posted to identify smoking and nonsmoking areas.