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Nine proposed casino projects could mean growth for economy

The state should get a shot in the arm from activity taking place in the gaming industry as one new casino gets ready to open, nine proposed projects are in various stages of approval and others are making upgrades.

The mammoth Hard Rock Casino & Hotel is set to open in Biloxi in the fall bringing a new brand to the area’s gaming mix. The Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg is doing a massive upgrade that includes a new hotel and parking garage.

According to Becky Clark with the Mississippi Gaming Commission, Vicksburg may have two new casinos. Magnolia Hill Resort and Pot of Gold Casino, a $42-million project that will be adjacent to the Rainbow Casino, has site approval from the commission. Lakes Gaming, a company headed by Grand Casinos founder Lyle Berman, has two of the three necessary approvals for its $200-million project.

Gaming attorney Danny McDaniel of the Phelps Dunbar firm in Jackson represents Lakes Gaming and a proposed Biloxi project Havana Casino Resort. “These two projects represent $450 million in investments and 3,000 jobs,” he said. “They both are run by people well known in gaming and have a lot of access to capital.”

He expects both projects to receive final approval from the gaming commission in September or October. “We should see something coming out of the ground in the fall,” he said.

In compliance with the gaming commission’s regulations, proposed gaming projects must receive site approval, plan approval and final approval after financing is in place.

Bacaran Bay Casino Resort, a $500-million project of Torguson Gaming Group, has received two of three approvals for its Biloxi project. Also new to the Coast gaming scene, Silver Slipper Casino is currently operating the President Casino and will do so until January 3, 2006. After that date, the casino barge will move to Lakeshore in Hancock County as part of a $33-million complex there.

Strong market conditions

“The Gulf Coast market appears to be growing at an increased rate while gross gaming revenue continues to rise,” said Gaming Commission executive director Larry Gregory.

He said he is still amazed at how strong the state’s gaming market is and believes other gaming jurisdictions are green with envy due to our recent growth. “But most importantly, all of the new development equates to jobs,” he added.

Gregory says the new development in Vicksburg has caught many in the industry by surprise. “However, that market had to create a new experience for its customers in order to compete against the Choctaws to the East,” he said. “Competition brings out creativity and vision in big business and Vicksburg will benefit from that.”

The other river gaming towns have proposed projects, too. In Natchez, the Emerald Star Casino & Resort has received two of three approvals and is working on financing. Two properties — Delta Blues and Bali Hai — have site approval in Greenville, but those will expire later this year. And in Tunica, the Myriad Casino, billed as a $1.2-billion project, has two of three approvals that will expire in June 2006.

McDaniel, who represents Bali Hai’s owner Southwest Gaming, says the Greenville project is getting funding and should complete the process in the next four or five months.

“The gaming market is good in Mississippi and it’s absolutely healthy,” he said.

Anticipating a slowdown?

Senior economist with the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Darrin Webb isn’t so rosy about growth in the state’s gaming industry. “Gaming has had a lot of problems in the last few years in part due to 9/11 and because it has matured in Mississippi,” he said. “New casinos probably will not have a large impact on the state’s economy other than helping the local economy during construction.”

He says that’s because the new ones will slice up the marketing pie more, not increase the size of the pie. Revenues have been sluggish with an improved rate of growth last year of just 3%.

“That will probably be the long-term growth rate,” he said. “It’s leveled off. Three to four percent is the target rate for long-range growth. We had an initial spurt, then smaller casinos closed and larger ones came in. Then they started building on land and now we’re in another phase. We won’t have the large growth we saw in the early days.”

A different view

But the builder of Bacaran Bay sees things differently. Marlin Torguson, founder and CEO of the Torguson Gaming Group, believes the $50 million expansion of the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport, which will allow the airport to service 2.2 million passengers — up from 900,000 passengers — and the $68 million Coast Convention Center expansion — adding 200,000 square feet and doubling its current size — and the 11,000 condominium units currently in some form of development are signs of future growth and will further fuel growth of the area.

Torguson was one of the state’s earliest gaming pioneers and opened Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis and later Casino Magic in Biloxi. “I believed in this market in 1990 when many did not, and I still believe in the future growth of the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he said.

Bacaran Bay Casino Resort brings a new concept to the area with a 387-unit condominium hotel affiliated with the casino resort and championship golf course. It will include amenities that will appeal to the local market, too. Those include a 40-lane bowling center, six movie theaters, numerous restaurants, a 4,000-seat entertainment venue, a 500-seat club and a shopping esplanade. Additionally, there will be an all-suite hotel, over 80,000 square feet of convention and meeting space and 75,000 square feet of gaming space.

The project hopes to break ground later this year on a 12-acre site on the west side of Caillavet Street in Biloxi.

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

About Lynn Lofton

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