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A Mississippi Business Journal Q&A

Hairston ready to serve state, rebuild Coast casinos

Gulfport — As the newest member of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, Gulf Coast banker John M. Hairston will be part of regulating the industry and rebuilding it on the Coast. He was appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour for a term ending September 30, 2009.

A native of Gulfport, Hairston is executive vice president and chief operations officer of Hancock Bank. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and also completed graduate studies at the Louisiana State University School of Banking.

He serves on the board of numerous business and civic organizations. His involvement with community organizations includes serving on boards for the Salvation Army and Lynn Meadows Discovery Center. He is married to the former Ann Jue of Hollandale and they are the parents of two daughters, Taylor and Reagan.

The newest gaming commissioner shared some of his views about this service with the Mississippi Business Journal.

Mississippi Business Journal: What are your feelings about being appointed to the Gaming Commission at this crucial time in the industry?

John Hairston: I’m honored to serve the citizens of my home state, particularly at a time when grave challenges face Mississippi’s gaming industry. The impact of Hurricane Katrina on gaming tax revenue creates severe financial constraints on many municipalities, counties and public school systems. I am grateful to Gov. Barbour for entrusting me with this responsibility and approach the assignment with great solemnity.

MBJ: How did your background and experience prepare you for this service?

JH: My wife, Ann, and I love our home state. Ann is a Delta girl from Hollandale and I was raised on the Coast. When we finished school in chemical engineering at Mississippi State, jobs for engineers and other technical disciplines were few here at home.

The situation is brighter now but we still have a big drain of capable young Mississippians leaving after every graduation ceremony. I am passionately focused on doing everything I can to develop Mississippi’s economy and career opportunities for the kids now coming along. My commitment to serve the people of this state is the best background I have for the assignment.

I also work with a company that considers service to community a core value. My duties have allowed me to spend many years in various economic redevelopment assignments. The banking industry instills the importance of ethics and integrity among the ownership of companies. Mississippi has done a superb job for 15 years of insuring that the gaming operators who do business here do it the right way and therefore maintain public confidence. I intend to do my part to continue that trend.

MBJ: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Coast casinos as they rebuild?

JH: The biggest challenge to rebuilding the Coast gaming industry and all other business on the Coast is housing. Affordable housing, delivered immediately, is required to making workforce available. About 35,000 homes and a big percentage of apartment complexes were lost in the storm. There are simply not enough places to live to get all Coast businesses operating at pre-Katrina levels.

Quality of life in South Mississippi is very attractive. Once we have housing, we will have ample workforce available to get the gaming facilities built and staffed to open for business. We have good, solid operators on the Coast. They were well-insured, are well capitalized and have the ability to rebuild quickly if they can just get the people.

There is a bit of short-term anxiety around where the various communities will establish zones for casinos, but we have good, effective elected leadership. I am confident they will make good decisions that are good for the industry and good for the communities.

MBJ: What role will the Commission play in those efforts?

JH: The Commission is fortunate that our chairman, Jerry St Pé, is also the chairman of one of the committees on the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild. He understands the challenges facing South Mississippi and has been providing great leadership in both assignments. I expect he will insure that open and honest dialogue occurs between all parties to help the gaming commissioners make good decisions. We also have very effective representation from the northern half of Mississippi in Commissioner Nolen Canon and with Larry Gregory and his team of hard-working people in the gaming department.

We will be an active group, asking a lot of questions and focused on making decisions with a commitment to economic development, service to community, and business ethics. We will tirelessly work on job development, facility improvements and getting revenue back to the people who need it most.

MBJ: How do you respond to those in the state who are morally opposed to gaming?

JH: Reasonable and well-meaning people routinely disagree on issues of morality. In fact, the individuals who disagree with each other on the gaming question have a lot more in common than not. They have the same commitment to family and moral values. They go to work together, worship together and go to school together.

We should all focus our energies on what will improve Mississippi for the children who follow us. If an individual thinks that the most important issue they should dedicate time and energy to is to debate gaming, then they should follow their heart and do so. As a Christian, I feel we have greater issues to focus on such as family values, reversing federal court rulings that prohibit prayer in schools and at football games, cleaning up sleazy television, fighting drug and alcohol abuse and teaching our kids character, values, integrity.

I do have concern when I hear of a family hurt or a business and home lost because of an addiction to gaming, but I also think individuals who make bad decisions are accountable for their own actions.

It is important to note that my personal opinions, whether they are pro gaming or anti gaming, are irrelevant when it comes to duties as a Commissioner. My job is to insure Mississippi’s gaming industry is economically viable, adds value to our communities, jobs to our citizens and is operated with the highest possible degree of integrity.

MBJ: How would you like to see the industry grow?

JH: It needs to grow only where it adds value to a particular community. Second, we must leverage the tax revenues from gaming to reinvest back into attracting new industries. This will alleviate too much dependence on an industry that is naturally at risk due to location on waterfront property. Third, we need to insure that we have healthy competition between operators but not so many that the operators can not afford to reinvest back in the community.

The wisdom of the Mississippi Legislature 15 years ago was to make the casino itself only a part of the attraction. They wanted golf courses, hotels, parks, convention centers, etc. We should examine new ventures carefully to insure we license those who have the financial strength to deliver on that legislative concept.

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

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