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Moving casinos inland — even a bit — a prickly issue

Gov. Haley Barbour called a special session September 27 to discuss disaster relief measures for businesses, including a top-priority item: discussing options for land-based casinos.

“Everybody knows we’re going to get hit by another hurricane. It’s not if, it’s when. It’s the nature of nature and of our lives here, especially along the Gulf Coast,” said House Gaming Committee chairman Bobby Moak (D-Bogue Chitto).

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said a mixed bag of ideas regarding inland gaming has been floating around boardrooms.

“There’s no consensus at this point,” he said. “(Commission chairman) Jerry St. Pé and I went to Las Vegas last month and met with all gaming company CEOs in corporate offices, and they all want to rebuild in Mississippi. They all agreed in concept of having inland gaming. Some insisted on inland gaming before they’d come back, in particular, Harrah’s. They believe the risk is too great to build over water. They believe they may not be able to get insurance if they build over water, but if the option of inland gaming is written into the laws, they’ll return.”

Determining where the line begins and ends is a major obstacle, said Gregory.

“Everyone agrees — state lawmakers, industry executives and the commission — that we’re not talking about I-10, Brookhaven, Jackson or north,” he said. “We’re basically talking about the footprint of existing casinos.”

At press time, the House Gaming Committee had not developed any options.

“The industry has brought us a proposal of 2,000 feet,” said Moak. “The local boards of supervisors passed a resolution at 1,500 feet. We have some in the industry who say they don’t have to move at all. Others want to move farther out, and some just a very few feet. It’s all over the board right now. I’d really like to see some cohesion with these groups and for the industry to come to us with one voice, but I’ve about resigned myself to the fact that’s not going to happen.”

Rumors circulating about moving gaming inland to Mississippi cities like Jackson, Columbus or Tupelo are false, said Moak.

“I don’t believe anyone envisions that, and if someone is trying to pedal that perception, they’re wrong,” he said. “I’m not personally for opening gaming in communities other than where it’s located now. The casinos want to stay there and I don’t see any drastic change in the gaming act to allow otherwise. Even though casino barges were blown away by the hurricane, they still have millions of dollars of infrastructure and buildings sitting on pieces of property they’re not going to abandon.”

Moak pointed out that the Isle of Capri in Biloxi “sits on fill tidelands, leased from the state.”

“If we walked under their hotel on pilings, we’d reach down and pick up a handful of dirt,” he said. “Under our law, that dirt is water. So they’re legal. I believe other folks want as a minimum to have the same option. Because of the undulation of the coastline, everybody doesn’t get the same benefit. If this issue has legs, the first thing we’ll look at is their current footprint, so nobody needs to be worried right now. We’re hearing from all sides.”

Chuck Miller, president of the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw, said the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians “are not opposed to land-based casinos on the Gulf Coast and have made no statements opposing such legislation.”

Bruce Nourse, spokesperson for Beau Rivage in Biloxi, said its parent company, MGM Mirage, supports land-based gaming and temporary casinos. “We are concerned the Legislature may allow casinos to creep inland — not only a matter of feet but also miles — and we would be very opposed to that.”

Walter Tipton, tourism director for the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said because Natchez “is such a unique market, we don’t know if inland gaming would have a big impact on us or not.”

Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, said business leaders would prioritize issues on the first day of the special session, “but my sense is the community in South Mississippi, after looking at all the barges scattered along the road, would make a pretty logical decision. I haven’t heard anyone say they want to keep the casinos in the water.”

Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica County CVB, said Tunica leaders have no official position on the issue, adding, “We don’t want anything that, years from now, will put Tunica at a competitive disadvantage. I think we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. For reinvestment on the Gulf Coast, you’ll see some changes. We’d like to see the Gulf Coast come back as strong as possible, but we also want to make sure we’re operating under the same laws.”

Molding a political answer to the issue in an expeditious fashion will be top priority, said Moak.

“Casinos need to know the rules of the game and the market needs to know that Mississippi is a stable environment,” he said. “With the President, FEMA and everyone else taking political hits because of inaction and tardiness on the hurricane issue, I don’t think the Mississippi Legislature needs to be put in the same position, being very slow to act.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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