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Mississippi Coast could see payoff from Harrah

Big Easy casino might draw more visitors to region

BILOXI – Mississippi Coast casinos have as little fear about being negatively impacted by the opening of Harrah’s, a land-based casino in New Orleans, as they had of the opening of Beau Rivage Resorts.

Coast casinos found that the opening of Beau Rivage actually expanded the marketplace, creating more customers for all the casinos. Some casinos are hoping Harrah’s will have a similar, albeit smaller, result.

The closest Mississippi casino to Harrah’s is Casino Magic Bay St. Louis. Christian Reese, public relations manager for Casino Magic Bay St. Louis and the Bridges Golf Resort, said they believe Harrah’s has the potential to draw more visitors to the region.

“We hope that it will actually expand the market we already have,” Reese said. “They are going to be expending marketing dollars that will be attracting more visitors to New Orleans, and more visitors will inevitably find out about the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a whole. We hope that it is going to be successful for New Orleans and for us. The key is expanding the marketplace.”

Although Casino Magic Bay St. Louis might be expected to see the greatest impact from the opening of Harrah’s, Reese said the casino has a niche by being the only casino resort in Louisiana or Mississippi that has a complete package that includes an on-site hotel, on-site golf course, casino and facilities for recreational vehicles.

“We are a total resort destination covering 590 acres,” Reese said. “We’re the only casino with a total package.”

Boomtown in Biloxi also isn’t shaking in its boots over the opening of Harrah’s. Boomtown general manager Wayne Yarbrough said about 70% of Boomtown’s business is local. So he expects little impact.

“We haven’t seen any impact at all from the opening of Harrah’s,” Yarbrough said. “We have a niche market. We do get some business from Louisiana, but it is not anything significant.”

Yarbrough thinks people may still prefer coming to Mississippi to visit casinos because of the congestion, parking difficulties and higher crime rate in New Orleans. More variety is also available at Coast casinos.

Yarbrough also questioned whether Harrah’s will be able to make it considering the casino has to make an annual payment of $100 million in taxes. “That would scare me to death,” Yarbrough said.

By contrast, Mississippi casinos pay a portion of their proceeds in taxes instead of a set fee. Lori Hutzler, public relations manager for the Isle of Capri Casino Crowne Plaza Resort, said Louisiana casinos have to overcome not only more taxes, but more restrictive regulations than their counterparts in Mississippi.

“Gaming is the same industry, but of a different nature in Louisiana,” Hutzler said. “Here it is part of an overall tourism approach. Louisiana has a lot of red tape and restrictions that we don’t have to deal with here. Mississippi has a better gaming climate because the state has done everything it can in order to allow its industry to flourish.”

While New Orleans might be expected to draw more national and even international casino patrons than the Mississippi Coast, in fact patronage from locals (including those within a drive-in range of two to three hours) makes up the bulk of casino customers in the South.

“The bread and butter of the gaming industry in the South is the locals,” Hutzler said. “We have a good local market. We’ll have to see how that plays out in Louisiana. I think a lot of them enjoy getting out of the city, and may still come to visit Mississippi casinos.”

Hutzler said the opening of Harrah’s has been a big story, one that has attracted a lot of attention from the press. Like Reese with Casino Magic, Hutzler sees the opening of Harrah’s more as an opportunity than a threat.

“One of the best things about being the first casino to open in a region is that you get a lot of experience as other casinos open,” Hutzler said. “We have seen other casinos open in New Orleans area, and we know how to protect our niche, and also how to utilize competition. Competition is good. That’s why malls do so well. It is the same principle for casinos.”

Hutzler likened Harrah’s to an anchor store in the mall that will draw more customers for everyone in the mall because of their large expenditures for advertising, and name recognition that creates a greater draw for customers.

The Isle of Capri is the easternmost casino in Mississippi, and hence draws most of its players regionally from Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Players from Louisiana are more likely to stop at one of Mississippi casinos located on the western part of the Coast.

Harrah’s has been described as a top-quality casino with fine attention to detail. Some believe that if the casino survives (the land-based casino already closed once), it could help expand the market in the region.

“We wish our neighbors well,” said Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In the long term, we believe Harrah’s will increase the number of visitors to the Gulf Coast region, which will be helpful for everyone. It is a very different product. They don’t have any hotel rooms or restaurants associated with the casino, for example. And they don’t have the kind of amenities we have here such as golf and fishing.”

Richer said anytime something new opens, there is curiosity to see the place. So a temporarily shift as people check on the new casino could be expected. But he believes Harrah’s will have a limited long-term market impact.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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