A conceptual rendering of the Pamunkey Tribe's proposed $700 million casino in Virginia. Image: Pamunkey Tribe

Pamunkey Tribe partners with billionaire developer in push for casino

The recently recognized Pamunkey Tribe is working with a billionaire developer as it seeks to open the first casino in Virginia, an endeavor characterized by numerous hurdles.

Jon Yarbrough is best known as the founder of Video Gaming Technologies, which has supplied gaming machines to tribal casinos across the country. He's now helping the Pamunkeys with plans for a $700 million facility, according to news reports.

“I have worked with countless tribes and I know what it takes for a project like this to be successful,” Yarbrough said in a statement quoted by The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I am confident that with the Pamunkey tribe’s strategic approach, resolve and sense of community, coupled with our financial strength, they can bring about a number of projects of which the tribe and the Commonwealth can be proud.”

The Times-Dispatch and other news sources identified Yarbrough as the owner of "TONARE LAND LLC," the firm which purchased about 600 acres along a major interstate near Richmond, the state capital. The firm paid about $3 million for the parcels, according to New Kent County property records.

Indianz.Com on Google Maps: Pamunkey Tribe - Homelands and New lands in Virginia

The tribe hasn't settled on the site completely, Chief Robert Gray has told news outlets. Other locations near the tribe's reservation, which is about an hour east of Richmond, are also being looked at.

“Now that we have made our plans public, we intend to aggressively pursue land acquisitions that make sense for us and that can help bring our larger economic plans to fruition,” Gray said in a statement quoted by The Times-Dispatch. “The Pamunkey people are patient, but we are ready to put this into high gear. Our young people need educational and job opportunities and our older tribe members need better access to health care and housing. And this is not something we intend to wait five years for.”

Any site the tribe chooses would have to be placed in trust, a process that takes "very long time" to get through, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was told at a hearing on Wednesday afternoon.

"Typically, we're talking years?" asked Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the panel.

"Correct," Darryl LaCounte, a senior official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, responded.

"In some cases, quite a few years," Hoeven continued.

"Quite a few years, yes," added LaCounte, who said he has "studied" the issue at the BIA for quite some time.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs April 25, 2018

Beyond land, the tribe might have to negotiate a Class III gaming compact with the state of Virginia, where games like slot machines and card games are not legal in the state, though some lawmakers have been trying to authorize them for years. But even without those games, Gray believes a Class II facility that offers bingo and electronic versions of bingo would be viable, The Newport News Daily Press reported.

Class III-style gaming is legal in neighboring Maryland, where there are no federally recognized tribes. But the state is home to the MGM National Harbor, a large facility just outside of Washington, D.C. MGM, incidentally, had tried to derail the Pamunkeys during the federal acknowledgment process.

Class III-style gaming is also legal in neighboring North Carolina. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates two casinos in the far western part of the state.

A sign at MGM National Harbor, a gaming facility in Maryland, located less than 10 miles from the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Pamunkeys gained official recognition of its status in 2016. The tribe was the first in Virginia to go through the federal acknowledgement process at the BIA.

Generally, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act bars gaming on lands acquired after 1988. But Section 20 of the law provides an exception for newly recognized tribes like the Pamunkeys.

Despite the presence of the exception, the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision known as Carcieri v. Salazar, ruled that a tribe must have been "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934 to qualify for the land-into-trust process. The Pamunkeys would have to demonstrate they meet the criteria or otherwise find a way -- possibly through Congress, like others are doing -- to get land for a casino, or for any other purpose for that matter.


Since Carcieri, only one newly recognized tribe has opened a casino after meeting the criteria. The Cowlitz Tribe just celebrated the first anniversary of its facility in Washington, after overcoming more than a decade of regulatory, political and legal hurdles.

The recently recognized Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe also qualified but litigation has placed its casino in Massachusetts in doubt. The process there took almost a decade and remains unresolved, with the Trump administration at one point ready to conclude that the tribe does not qualify in the post-Carcieri era.

Read More on the Story:
A billionaire backer for the Pamunkey casino (The Newport News Daily Press April 25, 2018)
New Kent supervisor to hold town hall to address possible Pamunkey casino (The Virginia Gazette April 25, 2018)
Pamunkey Indian Tribe partner buys 600 acres in New Kent for possible casino (The Richmond Times-Dispatch April 23, 2018)
Pamunkey tribe buys over 600 New Kent acres; still pursuing Va. casino plan (WTVR April 23, 2018)

An Opinion:
Editorial: The Pamunkey tribe and their casino plan (The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star April 24, 2018)

Related Stories:
Pamunkey Tribe connected to acquisition of land by gaming company (April 23, 2018)
Pamunkey Tribe announces plans for $700 million gaming facility (March 16, 2018)

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