Tourists pass through the rotunda in the Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

First in a series looking ahead to the General Assembly session that starts next week.

A high-dollar, lobbyist-intensive push to legalize casino gambling is gaining steam in three struggling Virginia cities.

The push began in Bristol, where a group of developers flush with coal cash are pursuing plans to convert an empty shopping mall into a casino resort.

Their local representatives in the General Assembly, Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, and Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, have agreed to introduce legislation that would allow a casino as long as city residents approve it in a local referendum, according to the Bristol Herald Courier.

Meanwhile, the principals of the United Company, which proposed the plan, have hired a team of seven lobbyists and dropped huge donations on House and Senate lawmakers that now total more than a half million dollars.

Leaders in Danville, about three hours east of Bristol, announced last week that they’re considering joining the effort in a bid to win permission to open a casino of their own. In a statement, they said the United Company had pitched them on the plan in October. And like Bristol, they cited a potential for a big economic boost as the primary motivating factor.

“We are talking about an unprecedented number of jobs and significant new revenue in our city,” Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones said Friday. “We continue to gather information and confirm facts, but it’s too large of a potential investment opportunity to dismiss out of the gate.”

The council is scheduled to vote on a resolution asking to be included in casino legislation on Thursday.

In Hampton Roads, Portsmouth passed a resolution expressing support for casino legislation back in October.

That city, however, is a reminder of how consistently past efforts have failed. The resolution notes that Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, had unsuccessfully put forward casino legislation every year since 2013.

Like in Bristol and Danville, leaders cited ongoing economic hardship and the potential they see for a destination casino to turn that around.

What remains unclear is whether bipartisan support from three distinct corners of the state will be enough to sway lawmakers.

One argument that’s already been making the rounds is that if the state is plunking down a huge amount of cash to land Amazon in Northern Virginia, it ought to throw a bone to the rest of the state, particularly areas that have long been struggling.

So far, General Assembly leaders haven’t offered any indication as to whether they’re willing to bend on the issue.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, whose political action committee received more than $200,000 from the Bristol casino boosters, told The Washington Post last year that he does not “believe opening the commonwealth to casino gambling is in the state’s long-term best interests.”

Sports betting, tribal casinos also in the mix

Struggling cities aren’t the only groups angling for casinos. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe announced they plan to work with leaders in Norfolk to eventually open a tribal casino there. The proposal would eventually require some General Assembly action, but not this year.

And a Supreme Court ruling that’s opened the door to sports betting around the country has already inspired two Democratic lawmakers to introduce proposals that would allow betting on professional sports.

Both exclude betting on college sports, but would devote revenue to higher education.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.