Pamunkey Indian Tribe planning $700 million resort, gaming facility

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe wants to venture into business, operating a destination resort with legal gaming and employing 4,000 full-time workers somewhere in eastern Virginia.

The King William County-based tribe’s council has approved the idea and is looking for land for what it envisions as a $700 million facility featuring shows, a spa and and hotel in addition to gaming, chief Robert Gray said.

The council believes the project would generate 3,000 to 5,000 construction jobs. Once in operation, the resort would have a payroll of $200 million and would have a $1 billion a year indirect economic impact on the state, according to the council.

Gray said there’s no firm timeline, since the council needs to find suitable land with easy access and that has the water, sewer and utilities — or the ability to set those up — to handle a major tourism draw.

He said the resort would not be built on the tribe’s 1,200-acre reservation in King William County, where about 50 of its 380 members live, and that any location would have to be approved by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs as land that was once part of Pamunkey territory.

Gray said the council also wants to be sure the large facility would be welcomed by neighbors.

“We want partnership,” he said. “We’re simply business people trying to figure this out, as an Indian tribe that wants to do its best for our people and for the commonwealth.”

Gray said the tribal council envisages a revenue-sharing agreement with the state and the locality where it builds the resort.

He said the tribe is working with an investor group that has helped other tribes launch similar ventures.

Because the tribal council is still in negotiations with the group, he declined to give its name or to say who was involved.

In addition to looking for a site, the tribal council still needs to reach a final agreement with the investor group and line up any additional financing, he said. All those efforts are going on in parallel, he added.

Recognition

Unlike the six tribes recognized by Congress earlier this year in legislation that specifically bars them from launching gambling enterprises, the Pamunkey’s Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition, like that of other BIA-recognized tribes, allows them to get into the gaming business. Recognition means the federal government considers a tribe to be a sovereign entity, governing its own affairs much like a state does, a power some BIA-recognized tribes have used to launch casino and other businesses for tax-free sales of tobacco and gasoline.

The Pamunkey began seeking BIA recognition in 1982 and were the first Virginia tribe to win federal recognition, in 2016. Casino operator MGM, Virginia convenience store and gas station owners and a California nonprofit that has opposed Indian gaming in that state opposed recognition of the Pamunkey, as did members of the Congressional Black Caucus, alleging that the tribe once barred members from marrying African-Americans.

But the BIA found that the tribe, which signed its first treaty with Virginia’s colonial rulers in 1646 and reconfirmed it in 1677, an occasion marked by King Charles II’s gift of a silver band to the Queen of the Pamunkey, was a longstanding and continuing Native American group.

To win recognition the tribe had to present extensive historical and genealogical research, satisfying seven BIA standards for recognition.

Regulation

Gaming at the resort would be regulated by the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal agency established in 1988 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tribal governments can establish and regulate gaming operations independent of state regulation, as long as the state permits some form of gaming.

The commission’s oversight covers the operation of any casino to be sure it is fair to gamblers, as well as any agreement between a tribal council and the management firm it hires.

It says that a tribal government can operate casino games, such as blackjack, craps or roulette, as well as slot machines if that form of gambling is legal in the state, has negotiated a compact with the state and if the tribal government’s gambling ordinance has been approved by the commission chair.

However, noncasino games — bingo and card games, such as poker, where players bet against one another and not against the house — don’t require a state compact, and the Pamunkey believe the resort would be viable with this type of gaming, if Virginia has qualms about casino gambling.

Virginia law currently bars gambling on games of chance, but specifically allows bingo and betting on horses. Unlike some states, however, the Code of Virginia does not specifically list card games such as poker or blackjack or faro as games of chance. One U.S. District Court decision, in New York in 2012, has ruled poker is a game of skill.

Investor interest

Gray said that as the tribal council pursued BIA recognition, it was contacted by several investor groups interested in gaming, but held off on any decision. The council’s interest in seeking recognition was gaining access to federal housing, education and grant programs, he said.

He said the council believes the group it is now working with is on board with the council’s goals, seeing the resort as an element in an economic development strategy that could involve getting into such areas as senior housing and broadband services for rural Virginia.

As part of that development effort, the tribal council is moving to join the Middle Peninsula Planning District Council, thinking in part that its access to federal grant funds could be a tool to help the region’s infrastructure and job creation needs.

“We don’t live in teepees; we’re just your neighbors,” he said. “We’ve got jobs in Richmond, Mechanicsville, Williamsburg. We’re retirees, kids … right now we can use HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) funds, the Indian Health Service. But wouldn’t it be great if we paid for our own health care — more self-sufficiency, more self government.”

Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535

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