BRISTOL, Va. — Watch out, Cherokee, North Carolina. A new casino operation is on the horizon near the Virginia-Tennessee line in the Twin City of Bristol.

Voters on the Virginia side of Bristol by a wide margin decided to take the chance gambling will help rejuvenate the community, the towns’ shuttered mall and maybe even the region.

In unofficial returns released Tuesday night by the commonwealth’s Election Board and Department of Elections, the tally was 5,457 to 2,221 on a referendum that allows a Hard Rock Cafe casino to open in the former Bristol Mall at 500 Gate City Highway.

All told, more than 7,600 of the city’s more than 11,000 registered voters voted, and of those 4,654 voted early.

The results are potentially incomplete and definitely unofficial because mail-in ballots will be accepted until noon on Friday. Results are to be certified Nov. 16.

The vote came despite opposition from a group of nine churches, which used flyers and billboards to get out their message

Proponents of the casino, in contrast, had deeper pockets and launched television, social media and other support.

The casino effort was led by Bristol businessmen Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacey. After the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam passed the casino bill, Bristol, McGlothlin and Stacey partnered with Hard Rock International.

Andy Poarch, spokesman for the project, said the proposal also drew support from 50 Bristol area businesses, as well as teachers and educators, hospitality and tourism officials, including Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Caldwell, and the city police and fire chiefs.

a “moonshot”

The chairmen of the “Vote Yes For Bristol” referendum committee, Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International; McGlothlin, chairman and CEO of The United Company; and Stacey, president of Par Ventures, issued a joint statement regarding the referendum.

“This is a win for Bristol and a win for the entire region,” they said. “We know this project will transform the economy of this area and make it an even better place to call home.”

McGlothlin has characterized the project as a “moonshot.”

“When Clyde and I launched this idea over two years ago, we called it a ‘moonshot,’ “ McGlothlin said. “Well, thanks to the voters in Bristol, Virginia, for providing the fuel, with passage of the referendum, to launch us to that successful landing.”

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol will result in more than 2,000 new jobs, $16 to $21 million in annual tax revenue for the city and 4 million tourists each year to the area.

The blueprints call for a two-level casino floor, outdoor entertainment venue with capacity to hold 20,000 people, 3,200-seat indoor theater, seven restaurants, four bars, retail shopping, convention and meeting space and a 350-room hotel. Poarch said a phase two could add more hotel rooms.

Hard Rock officials say the jobs forecast will come with an average annual wage of $45,000 per person. Revenue is to spill over into neighboring Virginia localities in direct payments and to Northeast Tennessee indirectly from the spending of folks coming to the region to visit the casino.

Would Jesus vote for a casino?

A group of Bristol area churches formed the “No Bristol Casino” movement: Fellowship Chapel, Friendship Baptist, Victory Baptist, Belle Meadows Baptist, Liberty Baptist, Throne of Grace Baptist Tabernacle, River Bend Baptist, East Bristol Baptist and Parkway Baptist.

Scott Price, pastor of Fellowship Chapel, said he sees no long-term good coming from the casino. A series of billboard ads urged voters to reject the casino project, including one that asked what Jesus would do if faced with such a referendum. Also, a mailer the opposition group sent to Bristol voters claimed “gambling is a psychological addiction,” and “carries the same life-wrecking potential as cocaine” and said gamblers are “harder to rehabilitate than alcoholics.”

The cities of Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth had casino referendums Tuesday under the casino law. Richmond, which has not yet chosen an operating partner, is to have one in November 2021. All had to meet qualifications as economically distressed.

What’s next?

With the voter approval, Poarch said the next step is to apply for a license from the Virginia Lottery Board to conduct gambling and open and operate the casino. By law, lottery officials have up to 12 months to review the application, but Poarch said project advocates hope the appro- val process is quicker.

The timeline includes a temporary casino to operate in the former Belk location in the mall while the rest of the mall is renovated and new portions built. The timeline calls for the permanent casino to open in late 2022.

“Our hope is to be able to open the temporary casino in the old Belk building in either the third or fourth quarter of next year, 2021,” Poarch said, with the full resort opening before the end of 2022.