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Tourism, sales tax, casino visitors similar to numbers of past years

City of Vicksburg expecting decent holiday season

VICKSBURG — It is still too early to tell, but city officials and business owners are expecting a decent holiday season this year in terms of sales tax collections, tourism numbers and casino visitors.

Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce, said business owners he has spoken to say the season is going well.

“I think it will be comparable to last year, or maybe a little bit better this year,” Heidel said.

Vicksburg is a regional draw with its outlet mall, casinos and list of historic places. December and January are typically not big months for tourism, but this year more Mississippians are showing up in the city to shop, eat, drink and gamble.

“We’ve had several people who decided to tour the U.S. instead of going to Europe,” Heidel said. “I think that’s going to help our tourism this time of the year. And I think the in-state marketing program that the MDA (Mississippi Development Authority) did has helped us, too.”

Lenore Barkley, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said this holiday season is a bit slower than last visitor-wise. After the Sept. 11 tragedy she saw the city almost shut down for a couple of weeks, but during October and November it began to pick up again.

“I haven’t talked to a lot of attractions in December yet, but from the couple I have talked to, they have indicated it’s been slower than normal,” Barkley said, adding that she expected the number of visitors to increase closer to Christmastime though.

Rosalie Theobald, the Vicksburg Main Street director, said from what she has gathered by talking to area businesses, sales have been brisk.

“I’m hearing more shoppers telling me that with so many specialty shops downtown that they’ve had more fun coming downtown and shopping,” Theobald said. “They have more variety of Christmas items to choose from than ever before.”

Theobald said it is hard to put a dollar amount on what is happening in the city though. “People are shopping downtown, people are up and down the street, shops are full, but I just don’t know right now if they’re spending more than last year or if we just have more bargain hunters,” Theobald said. “I guess that’s something we’re going to have to wait and see until the end of the holiday season.”

If bargain hunters are out this year, chances are Margaret Gilmer has seen them. Gilmer, mall manager and leasing agent at the Vicksburg Factory Outlets, said most of the stores have been offering 15% to 30% off on weekends in addition to their already low prices.

“If you’re on a real budget you can get a lot of great items for wonderful prices,” Gilmer said. “I’m hoping everyone in the state and especially in the central Mississippi region are going to have a good Christmas season, and that’s been the feedback I’m getting locally.”

Gilmer said she has been very thankful for her sales this year. Through October 2001 sales were up at the factory outlets 4.2% over Oct. 2000. Right now sales are up about 1.3% over last year.

Renee Williams, manager of the Pemberton Square Mall in Vicksburg, said sales at the mall are stable. She has not seen a surge in holiday spending.

“We’re tracking good with our sales from last year,” Williams said. “The last two weeks before Christmas we`re expecting major spending.”

Williams blamed the low numbers of shoppers on, among other things, the unseasonably warm weather.

“Now with the cooler weather everyone wants to get out and buy sweaters and coats,” Williams said.

For Carolyn Mayer at Annabelle Bed and Breakfast, things slowed down after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She said that while international business travelers from Europe had to cancel their stays, others who could not fly out stayed at Annabelle.

“We ended up with the sales immediately after the attacks being okay,” Mayer said.

December in the bed and breakfast business is traditionally slow, though.

“It`s not really what you could call dramatically different than it has been,” she said. “But I think generally speaking, the tourism business in Vicksburg is down a bit.”

At Anchuca, another bed and breakfast in Vicksburg, sales are all right, but, admitted co-owner Chris Brinkley, “It’s not as busy as we’d like. We`ve had quite a few special events to work with but not as many overnight guests. But as it winds down toward the holidays we just haven’t seen as many people looking for rooms.”

Brinkley said he is starting to get some phone calls about Anchuca’s getaway package being advertised around Mississippi.

Pamela Netterville, general manager of the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant, said the last time she ran a report she found she was running neck and neck with last year’s sales.

“The hotel’s doing well, the restaurant is doing well,” Netterville said.

Netterville also tracks tours at the mansion and has found that the number of tours is exactly the same this year as last, and that a lot of businesspeople have been staying at the inn lately.

“I guess most people are looking for something more relaxed, more in a home environment,” she said.

As for casino traffic, most casinos are still a little down from last year’s holiday season. But Missy Lawrence, senior director of marketing at Isle or Capri Casino and Hotel in Vicksburg, said business is starting to pick up.

“We’re definitely feeling recovery now,” she said.

And while the number of gamers may not be what it has been in the past at the Isle, Lawrence said the casino’s hotel business has never been better.

Ray Neilsen, general manager at Ameristar Casino, said he has seen an upward trend in the amount of people at Ameristar over the last few months.

“I think that business for us is getting better,” Neilsen said.

But Neilsen said the reason for business being up could be driven by the casino retrofit, which gave Ameristar practically a brand new casino, with new cages and a new blues bar.

Laurence Leyens, mayor of Vicksburg, said typically there are not many tourists in the city during this time of year. The big tourism months fall during the spring and fall.

“By the end of October it dwindles down to next to nothing,” Leyens said.

Heidel called Vicksburg “fortunate,” considering the city has not lost the jobs other cities in the state have. This year, Vicksburg has lost a little more than 100 jobs, and even better news are the 700 new jobs coming on board.

“New growth, new money spent, that’s what we’re looking forward to is a better economy,” Heidel said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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