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Could Moss Point become a gaming gateway of the Coast?

With plants gone, city considers options for replacing revenue

Moss Point — Could the Industrial City someday instead be the gateway for Mississippi Coast gaming traffic coming along Interstate 10 from Alabama, Florida and Georgia?

That’s what the mayor and board of aldermen of Moss Point would like to see happen. The city has struggled financially since the closure of its major industries, International Paper, Rohm & Haas and, most recently, Shipley Industries. The city wants to see if it is possible to develop gaming to help replace lost revenues.

“We’re operating now on about $300,000 less than when we had the industry here, which is a lot of revenue,” said Moss Point Mayor Frank Lynn. “The city is looking for a source of revenue. The board felt like we ought to exhaust every effort, and gaming came up. We are almost in a position anything that would bring tourists and money to City of Moss Point would be a favorable thing.”

The economy of Moss Point has changed dramatically in the past five years. Lynn said the city can no longer be called “The Industrial City.”

“We have some industry, but they are very few,” he said. “Each time we lose an industry, we lose revenue. We are already hard pressed. We have to find new sources of revenues. The property owners can’t continue paying the whole load of operating the city. I don’t even like to think of a tax increase. If you don’t have a tax increase, then you have to find revenue somewhere else.”

The Moss Point Board of Aldermen asked the mayor to write a letter to the Mississippi Gaming Commission asking what it would take for Moss Point to have a casino. Currently Moss Point’s waterfront on the Pascagoula and Escatawpa rivers is specifically excluded from gaming sites. So, changes to the State Code would be necessary to legalize Moss Point gaming.

“We have not yet been contacted by the City of Moss Point,” said Leigh Ann Wilkins, spokesperson for Mississippi Gaming Commission. “If they would like to meet with us, we will gladly meet with them to discuss their gaming issues. But, ultimately legislation would have to be changed for Moss Point to have a casino. And that, of course, would be up to the Legislature.”

Wilkins said current legislation only allows gaming on the Coast in waters south of the three southernmost counties. Rivers, creeks and bayous are not considered waters south of the three counties.

Under the present law, there is no provision to legalize gaming in only one city in a county. Legalizing gaming in Moss Point would mean legalizing it for all of Jackson County. Opinions are split on how a gaming referendum would fare in Jackson County. Pascagoula, which has a strong industrial base, and Ocean Springs, where there has been a significant amount of residential and commercial growth in recent years, might not be as hungry for gaming revenues as Moss Point. Ocean Springs has some zoning height restrictions on its beach that could prevent any high-rise buildings such as the tall hotels across the water on Biloxi’s Casino Row.

The law requires that 10 years pass after a county votes down gaming before it can be considered again. Jackson County voted against gaming about 15 years ago. It is the only coastal county that doesn’t have gaming. A referendum on gaming can only be held during a presidential election year. Thus, under the present law it wouldn’t be until 2008 that Jackson County voters could take up the issue.

Mayor Lynn believes the success of gaming in neighboring Harrison County might influence Jackson County voters to approve dockside gaming.

A casino in Moss Point could attract some of the gamblers from Alabama, Florida and Georgia traveling down Interstate 10 for casinos in Biloxi. Mayor Lynn said many visitors might enjoy the convenience of a casino located closer to the state line.

“I feel casinos would do real well in Moss Point,” Mayor Lynn said. “We are the gateway to Mississippi for Florida and Alabama. Jackson County would be a prime place for casinos.”

Beverly Martin, executive director of the Gulf Coast Gaming Association, said that while Jackson County twice voted against gaming, she believes attitudes have changed now that people have seen what gaming has done for the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She said that might be especially true for Ocean Springs because it is located within sight of the casino high rises in Biloxi. A lot of people who work for the gaming industry live in Ocean Springs, and that could be another factor in favor of legalizing the industry in Jackson County.
But Martin said the votes of casino employees living in Ocean Springs could go both ways: some would support it because the industry is how they make a living. Others might oppose it because they like the casino-free atmosphere in Ocean Springs.

“If you work in a casino, you rarely go to a casino,” she said. “You don’t want to go there on your day off.”

Martin’s first reaction to news about Moss Point’s interest in gaming would be that other casinos located on the Coast would be okay with it. Some might be interested in branching out into that area. But she said an important consideration is whether new casinos in Moss Point would bring growth and a new customer base, or just cannibalize the existing market.

“That would be the question,” Martin said. “It would depend on marketing.”

Coast casinos are welcoming the new Hard Rock Casino currently under construction in Biloxi because the casino will market to a younger crowd. That is expected to help grow the market. And since casino visitors often will visit more than one casino, other casinos could benefit from the new customers attracted by the Hard Rock Casino.

One disincentive to changing the gaming legislation to allow a casino in Moss Point could be concerns about legislators from non-gaming areas pushing for amendments to the legislation that would increase gaming taxes or change the distribution of the taxes. Recently, Coast elected officials have expressed concerns over rumors that legislators from non-gaming areas believe a higher percent of the revenues should go into the general fund, rather than the coffers of gaming cities.

“Elected official looking at reopening the code are of the opinion that once they reopen it, anything could happen,” Martin said.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway has said that reducing revenues from Biloxi, which has invested many millions in improving the infrastructure to serve the city’s casino industry, would be “catastrophic.” In July, Biloxi received $1.7 million in casino tax revenues, and the state received $6 million in tax revenues from Biloxi casinos.

But the gaming code would have to be re-opened if changes are made that the casinos do want to provide better hurricane protection for Coast casinos. Currently the floating casinos are at high risk from storms. A task force has been convened by the Secretary of State to look into the issue.

“It is lose-lose for everybody, making casinos float,” Martin said. “I don’t think they envisioned these big barge-like facilities when gaming was legalized. Our members absolutely want to reduce their exposure. A hurricane that caused the casinos to close could bankrupt Harrison County, and possibly bankrupt the State of Mississippi. A large part of the tax revenues in Harrison Coast are attributed to the casinos through casino taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes and property taxes. The ramifications would be very far reaching if a hurricane caused considerable damage. We have to come up with a way to protect state and city’s economic benefits, as well the 16,000 jobs out there. That is the number of direct employees. When you look at all spinoff jobs, it probably more like 50,000 to 60,000. If something happened, who would pay salaries for all those people?”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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