I recently spoke before the Mississippi Gaming Commission concerning casino development in the Back Bay of Biloxi.
The issue is important to every Mississippian for one clear reason: Keesler Air Force Base. Keesler is one of the keys to the Mississippi’s economy. Keesler has been a vital part of Mississippi in good times and in bad, before casinos, before Camille, for the past 60 years. It pumps $1.4 billion into our economy every year. It serves a vital role in our nation’s defense.
In its Feb. 28th edition, The New York Times reported that the new administration “will call for closing military bases around the country, saying the Pentagon’s budget is burdened by a 23 percent excess in base capacity.” For Mississippi to do anything that could endanger Keesler’s mission and put the base in the crosshairs of a future base closure commission would be a disaster. To threaten Keesler for the sake of another casino would be the worst kind of economics.
As the state official charged with overseeing the tidelands on the Gulf Coast, I have made it crystal clear that protecting Keesler Field is at the top of my concerns when making decisions on whether or not to lease tidelands.
Mississippi must maintain a diversified economy that is not overly dependent on any one industry. The strength of Keesler is an indispensable part of that picture.
When it comes to new casino development, I will look to Keesler officials first. If they present no objections to a suggested tidelands site, I will look at any proposal and weigh the particulars on its merits. If Keesler officials object because their mission may be compromised, that’s the end of it. No deal. No lease from my office.
Some have said that no casino proposals have been put forward that could harm Keesler Air Force Base and its mission. That is not true.
Already, the height of one casino hotel has compromised the training effectiveness of some flights. This hotel has limited the usefulness of the airfield in bad weather and has degraded the mission of the base. Casino development directly across the Bay from Keesler’s runways, as some have proposed, would threaten Keesler even more seriously.
If Keesler ever dies, it will not be because we Mississippians awakened one morning and voted to kill it. It will be because of numerous incremental, bad decisions made over a period of years, which have the cumulative effect of “degrading” the base’s mission and causing the Department of Defense to shut it down. There are multiple examples of that exact thing happening to military bases in urban areas across America. We must be ever vigilant, because there is no backing up.
I have visited with each of the commanders of Keesler over the past five years. All of them have expressed concerns about the impact of encroaching development on the viability of the base. Keesler officials expressed to me that they had no objections to reasonable development, provided concerns about height, light, density and noise are effectively addressed and made legally binding and effectively enforced. There must be legally binding and enforceable restrictions imposed by the Gaming Commission and the City of D’Iberville that accommodate all of Keesler’s concerns. I am confident that local officials and state agencies can work together to enforce these requirements.
All agencies involved in approving casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast need to send a clear, consistent signal to potential developers to avoid confusion; wasted time, effort and money. Now more than ever, the first signal should be that we will protect Keesler Air Force Base.
It’s good for the Coast, it’s good for Mississippi, and it’s good for our country.
Eric Clark is Mississippi’s Secretary of State. That office is online at www.sos.state.ms.us.