Conservative southwest Virginia city turns to marijuana, casinos for jobs

Conservative southwest Virginia city turns to marijuana, casinos for jobs
A historic sign over State Street in Bristol, which serves as the Tennessee-Virginia border through downtown. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

BRISTOL, VA — There are two big projects slated for a vacant shopping mall here.

One, a medical marijuana production center and dispensary, has been utterly uncontroversial.

The second, a destination casino resort, has divided the city, Virginia Mercury reports.

“This is an attack on the Bible Belt,” says Dewey Williams, an evangelical Baptist preacher who leads a congregation of 300 in the city. A history buff and avid hunter, he’s sitting in his basement office, which is wrapped in Civil War themed wallpaper and contains no less than three taxidermied raccoons.

He says he’s seen cannabis help sick people. And he says he’s seen the harm casinos can inflict on people who develop gambling addictions.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind could say if we get a casino we’ll be safer, we’ll be happier, families will do better, there will be less suicide, less divorce,” he says.

City Council members, who lead one of the state’s most fiscally distressed localities, disagree. They’ve unanimously backed both projects, citing the economic potential they would bring to a region that’s struggled amid the decline of manufacturing and coal industries.

The move might sound surprising. The small Southwestern Virginia city with a downtown that straddles the Tennessee border is among the most conservative in the state. The city’s roughly 17,000 residents delivered the second highest proportion of voters for President Donald Trump of any Virginia city.

But on the marijuana front, it tracks neatly with national public opinion polling on the subject, which has consistently shown growing support across the political spectrum to liberalize marijuana laws. The project is already moving forward after a local firm won one of five state licenses to produce and dispense THC and CBD extracts.

The casino proposal, meanwhile, has drawn strong opposition from some on social and moral grounds, mirroring the traditional stance of Republicans in the General Assembly, who steadfastly voted down proposals floated by Democrats in past years. In an about face at Bristol’s behest, though, they agreed last month to begin developing gaming regulations and pay for a study to inform a final decision next year.

While opposition is vocal, walking around downtown, you’re just as likely to run into supporters of the project, who note the potential for several thousand new, good-paying jobs in an area where industries tend to leave, not plant roots.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.