Afoot – Hard Rock CEO and Entrepreneur Share Advice on Entrepreneurial Success | Appalachian Heights

WISE – The economic profile north of Bristol’s casino may be “Viva Southwest Virginia” based on comments by panelists at the SWVA Economic Forum on Wednesday at UVA Wise.

Virginia Economic Development Partnership CEO Jason Cuban and a panel that included Hard Rock Casino and the Bristol Alley Evangelista Hotel provided separate views of the region’s economy two years after the COVID-19 pandemic before an in-person audience of nearly 180 business and tourism leaders and UVA-Wise staff.

Cuban, in his introductory presentation to the state of the region, said southwest Virginia had done better than two years of the outbreak in the state in recovering from job losses. He said the westernmost eight counties and city saw employment levels 0.4 percent higher in March than in February 2020, while all Virginia stands at 3.3 percent below February 2020 levels.

Cuban said that while rural Virginia was expected to lag urban areas by up to three years in employment recovery, rural areas are converging with urban areas.

Cuban said rural areas could look forward to more government assistance in boosting job growth. He said UVA Wise’s technological talent investment could help increase graduate numbers in computer technology fields, while the country’s current plans to make broadband available globally by 2024 would also help attract companies and improve the ability to work remotely.

“Often the difference between decline and growth is just a few hundred jobs,” Cuban told a forum audience.

Later in the forum, Evangelista joined Virginia Tourism CEO Rita McClinney and entrepreneur Karen Hester of Bristol to discuss the potential and actual impact across southwest Virginia from the opening of Bristol Casino in July and the permanent opening of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in 2024.

McClane said data from similar casino and hotel openings suggest 42 percent of visitors will visit historic areas during casino trips, with 35 percent visiting museums and attractions and 40 percent coming from outside areas for work or vacation.

McClinney added that the opening of Hard Rock will have a “hub and talk” effect on the area from casino visitors wanting to experience the natural, musical and other attractions of southwest Virginia.

With the initial casino opening in 42 days, Evangelista said Hard Rock will hire up to 700 workers for the initial phase. She added that local vendors would also be critical to the casino’s success, with the needs of bread makers, groundskeepers, restaurants, bedding suppliers and more.

Evangelista said the need for staff, vendors and suppliers will increase with the opening of the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel Bristol by mid-2024, with nearly 1,500 staff needed overall. Prospective sellers can find out more on the Bristol Casino webpage – – added.

Hester—owner of home décor store Cranberry Lane and candy maker The Southern Churn—told the forum that she found herself a hard rock saleswoman when a company delegation touring Bristol looking for potential locations came to Southern Churn in 2019 and sampled some of the store’s candy.

Since that visit, Hester said, Southern Churn has now been supplying Hard Rock operations in Florida, Cincinnati and Gary, Indiana after expanding its production.

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“We’ve made 150,000 pounds of bullshit in seven years,” Hester added.

Through her work at Hard Rock Casinos, Hester said she was able to hire more employees and spread the word about the sellers’ opportunities. She added that providing manpower was a concern of hers, and anyone considering building or expanding a business in search of a Hard Rock business needs to consider how to attract and retain their workforce.

Hester also noted the need for potential sellers to form secure supply chain partnerships if they want to become hard rock sellers. She noted her own experience in finding a reliable supply of eggs, butter, and sugar to produce the fudge.

Hester added that people who decide to retire early from the workforce may find new business opportunities as the casino demands sellers.

“We know (Hard Rock) will bring tourism to the area,” Hester said, adding that home and property owners can take advantage of the need for short-term rentals for incoming casino visitors. She pointed to her other job, Operation Vacation Rentals, as another opportunity she found. She added that the demand for rentals could mean that landlords in areas as far away as Wise County could take advantage of the tourist rental market.

“Maybe I was on the fence about starting a business,” Hester said. “It’s safe to say that no business is too small to handle Hard Rock.”

Evangelista said there is a housing shortage in the area and opportunity for homebuilders and renters. She pointed to a team of 11 Hard Rock executives for the Bristol operation, either renting or buying homes in the area.

As for the regional influence of the casino. Evengelista said Operation Bristol is within a 90-minute drive of its nearest potential competitor. This translates to a similar radius where guests may decide to visit attractions during their stay.

Evangelista said the proximity to Tri Cities Airport means the area has one strong transportation asset along with driving access via Interstate 81.

“We want people to be able to take a non-stop flight to Bristol and see what the area can offer,” McClinney added.

McClane said Hard Rock’s presence in Bristol also means a reason to bring a commuter railroad to Bristol and East Tennessee.

“If there’s a coalition in your area to bring Amtrak here, sign up,” Hester added.

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