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Committee studying issues of concern to Coast casinos

An ad hoc gaming committee is meeting to discuss coastal issues facing this important state industry. Brought together by Secretary of State Eric Clark and executive director of the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) William H. Walker, the panel is having open discussions about storm threats to the industry, deteriorating casino barges, siting of casinos and protection of the Tidelands Trust Fund.

“The jumping off point for me was the proposal for locating the Golden Gulf Casino in a canal dug out of dry ground, a boat in a moat,” Clark said. “My original concern was that the owners said they would not be in the Tidelands program and would not pay the Tidelands leases.”

He said his interest and legal responsibility is protecting that program.

Walker says the DMR is interested in protecting the environment and had been meeting with three Coast casinos on storm protection and rusting barges six weeks before Clark’s call went out for a committee.

“We decided to roll all the efforts into one committee,” he said. “It’s a good group that includes a real cross section of everyone involved in gaming — regulatory agencies, gaming representatives, business interests, the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.”

What happens to the casino barges in hurricanes is of major concern to many in the gaming industry who are looking for ways to have better protection. Walker proposed that additional stakeholders and consultants be added to the committee including an economist, marine engineer and representatives of the environmental community.

Both leaders emphasize that this committee has no authority and can not make anyone do anything.

“I have said repeatedly that I have more questions than answers and we need to look at these questions, along with options, as we face these issues,” Clark said. “It’s simply a responsible course of action for citizens to sit down and look at these issues.”

Walker, who was selected to chair the group, said, “First of all this committee has no authority. We will meet every two weeks and we may make recommendations but that’s all.”

He said those recommendations could be regulations promulgated by the State Gaming Commission, something done by the Secretary of State’s Office or possibly proposed legislation. The end of October is the target date for the committee to complete its work, but Walker said they would keep meeting as long as it takes.

The DMR chief said he does not think there will be any changes to his agency’s wetlands permitting process for casino sites. Nor does he foresee a push to move the casinos on land.

“Personally, I think they need to stay in the tidal areas,” he said. “I don’t think they will move. We need to stick with the legislation as it now exists.”

Speaking for the Mississippi Gaming Commission, executive director Larry Gregory said, “We think the committee is a positive move toward ensuring that all possibilities are explored regarding the casino industry and development on the Gulf Coast. We are looking forward to working with all members to render positive solutions by this fall.”

State Rep. Randall Patterson of Biloxi says his objective is to make sure the state keeps a level playing field for everyone in the industry. “I want to look out for those who’ve been here and gone by all the guidelines and make sure the new ones play by the same rules,” he said.

Patterson, whose district includes all but two of Biloxi’s casinos, is also protective of the Tidelands Trust Fund that pumps $6 million back into the Coastal counties to restore the marine environment, build public piers and boat launches and provide environmental education. A total of $46 million has been paid into the fund since casino barges began leasing these tidal-driven water bottoms in 1992. These water-covered acres off the Coast are owned by the state and the leases are administered by the Secretary of State.

“I did a lot of soul searching because I heard that some on the committee want to change the rules,” he said. “I got the impression from the first meeting that everyone is on the same page with common goals and wants to keep the rules consistent.”

He thinks the Golden Gulf’s proposal is the reason the study committee was formed. Clark agrees and says that now this casino’s proponents have come back and said they will pay the Tidelands lease if allowed to proceed with their plan. The Secretary of State says only the Mississippi Gaming Commission can decide if the proposed site is a legal site.

“We have to ask how can you do this and what are the long-term effects,” he said. “We must be careful that we don’t back into something that would be detrimental later.”

State Rep. Michael Janus of Biloxi is not on the committee but is following closely because he has two casinos in his district and is concerned about their deterioration.

“Some of these barges are rusting badly and they’re an environmental hazard,” he said. “I’ve been told you can stick your finger in some of them. They’ve been sitting in the saltwater a long time.”

Janus said he would suggest that the casinos be allowed to build bulkheads around the barges and pump out the saltwater.
Clark and Walker state that citizen input is solicited and the meetings are open to the public. The meetings will be held every other Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the auditorium of the Bolton State Office Building on Bayview Drive in Biloxi. The next meeting will be held August 11.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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