NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The operator of Waterside in Norfolk is suing the City of Norfolk, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Norfolk City Attorney Bernard Pishko, saying they have an agreement with the city that gives them the first right to open a casino — not the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.
The federally recognized Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which has a reservation along the Pamunkey River in King William County, is proposing to build a $500-million resort casino in Norfolk near Harbor Park. The project was approved through a voter referendum in November 2020.
However, the operator of Waterside, Cordish Companies, says they had an existing agreement with the city that says they could build a casino first.
Cordish is asking for $100 million in damages in the lawsuit complaint, which was filed June 15.
The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story Thursday afternoon.
Norfolk District Associates — the LLC formed by Cordish Companies to redevelop Waterside — contracted with the city to redevelop the project in 2013. Before the contract, the city and NRHA had taken over ownership and operation of the failing project, which originally opened in 1983. The lawsuit says the city suffered significant losses over the years it managed Waterside, including $1 million in 2008 alone.
In 2013, when Norfolk District Associates and the city struck the lease deal, more than 90% of Waterside was vacant, according to the complaint.
In the lawsuit paperwork, Waterside claims the city and the NRHA promised to support Norfolk District Associates in the development of a casino if the state of Virginia legalized commercial gaming.
The General Assembly passed a bill to legalize commercial gaming and casinos in Virginia last spring.
10 On Your Side first reported in March 2020 that Cordish threatened to sue if Norfolk allowed the Pamunkey tribe to build their casino first. At that time, Cordish sent a letter to the city saying it was in “material breach of multiple provisions” of its agreement with Cordish.
“[Norfolk District Associates] and its redevelopment contract were crystal clear: without the City’s commitment to make Cordish its exclusive developer for casino gaming, [Norfolk District Associates] would not undertake the herculean task and significant economic risks of redeveloping The Waterside,” the complaint reads.
The complaint also claims the city, NRHA and Pishko — the city attorney named as a defendant in the lawsuit who negotiated the original Waterside lease with Norfolk District Associates — conspired with the Pamunkey tribe and others to cover up “unlawful conduct against the Norfolk District Associates “through the illegal manipulation of state legislators, local officials, and the public.”
The lawsuit claims Pishko has a personal agenda in favor of the tribe and the tribe’s consulting firm involving in the casino project and purposely shuffled Norfolk District Associates out of the running when it came to the state legislation on casino gaming.
The lawsuit also claims Pishko said he was the “real mayor” of Norfolk — which he denies.
Pishko wrote in an email to 10 On Your Side Thursday: “There is no truth to their allegation that I said I was the real mayor. There complaint is not based in fact and is so defamatory that they asked that if I accepted their offer to receive a copy in advance in order to discuss settlement that I would have to agree to not sue them for defamation. A filed lawsuit is generally exempted from defamation laws but a prefiled complaint is not. Their central allegation that the Waterside lease provides for Cordish to be the exclusive gambling operator is fiction.”
Cordish is asking a judge to void Norfolk’s contract with the tribe, which would prevent the construction of the casino near Harbor Park.
Stay with WAVY.com for updates in this developing story.