If the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) builds its proposed casino in Jackson County, it would be one of the largest gaming venues in the state, according to published reports. The parking lot alone, big enough to hold 4,500 vehicles and 30 buses, gives an idea of just how large the resort would be. (Calls to the MBCI for comment were not returned at press time.)
However, it remains to be seen whether this project will ever get out of the ground near the intersection of Mississippi 57 and Interstate 10 at Ocean Springs. The MBCI’s proposed casino faces widespread opposition on the Coast, where normally disparate groups such as casinos, churches and conservationists have banded together to voice their disapproval.
“The Choctaws have made it sound as if we’re all scared of competition. That’s absurd,” said Keith Crosby, general manager at the new Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi. “If they want to play by the same rules, great. But they shouldn’t get an unfair advantage. The playing field should be level.”
The MBCI has a successful history of meeting challenges. Through its tribally-owned ventures, not the least of which is the Pearl River Resort and its two casinos in Neshoba County, it has developed a business enterprise vital to the East Central Mississippi region. It appears the Tribe will need all of that skill if it is to enter the Coast gaming market by building in Jackson County.
If nothing else, the Choctaws’ proposal is ambitious. The Jackson County casino is expected to rival in size the Coast’s largest casino, the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, and would be bigger by many measures than the Grand Casino Biloxi.
The total MBCI investment in the resort would be $375 million, according to media reports. Additionally, it would include 1,100 hotel rooms, 2,350 slot machines and 70 table games. It would also encompass a 15,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, 50,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 25,000 square feet of retail space and a restaurant that would seat 400 patrons.
The MBCI proposed casino would be a job-maker, with 2,800 full-time workers, representing a total payroll of $71 million. The Tribe estimates the creation of another 4,230 indirect jobs with a payroll of approximately $110 million.
And, construction would require approximately 3,800 workers with an estimated payroll of $115 million.
There is no debate that the MBCI proposed casino would be a huge boost for the area in terms of job creation. However, that is where all consensus ends, and there seems to be little middle ground in the issue.
Wave of opposition
On October 18, the Ocean Springs Civic Center hosted a public meeting that was supposed to be primarily focused on the environmental impact of the MBCI’s proposed casino. And, while the environment-minded were well represented, the estimated crowd of 400 people contained a wide cross-section of individuals and groups, the majority of whom had come to voice their concerns and opposition to the project.
Representatives of the Coast’s casinos were there, adamant that the MBCI was being given an unfair competitive advantage by building in a place that is prohibited to other casinos. Religious leaders brought their morality issues.Conservationists spoke of their fears that the gaming destination would blemish the area’s landscape. And, all of these groups were joined by area businesses, chambers of commerce and others, including average, concerned citizens, whose qualms with the project run the gamut from the MBCI’s exemption from paying local and state taxes to congested traffic.
While the opponents’ issues are many, there are two that seem to be drawing the most attention. These are tax collections and location.
Mississippi’s existing casinos are required to pay 12% in local and state taxes, funding that is funneled back into education and infrastructure. By law, the MBCI is exempt from paying local and state taxes. Thus, not only are the state’s other tax-paying casinos crying “foul,” citizens are upset that the proposed casino perhaps would not add to local coffers.
While tax collection is a hot-button issue, where the MBCI proposes to build brings even more heated response. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, legislation was passed allowing casinos to move their venues off the water and onto land. However, they still must be within 800 feet of the shoreline. The MBCI’s proposed site is well outside that limit, because the law allows Native American tribes to build on land they own regardless of where it is, with federal and state approval.
The location would give the MBCI the first shot at visitors from the east. Alabama and Florida are hot draws for venues in Harrison and Hancock counties, and opponents are concerned that the Choctaws could potentially grab a significant number of customers from those states.
When asked if he would change his opposition to the proposed casino if the MBCI agreed to make payments in lieu of taxes equal to the 12% required of Coast casinos, Chet Harrison, assistant general manager at Boomtown Biloxi, said, “Absolutely not. We’re not allowed to build in Jackson County. They should have to play by the same rules.”
The final say
The reason why Coast casinos cannot build in Jackson County is it is gaming-free — the county’s residents have twice voted “no” to casinos. The MBCI is calling for another referendum. But, that referendum would be non-binding, meaning the Tribe could build its casino even if the county’s citizenry voted it down.
The MBCI would have to have approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as the okay from the Governor’s Office. Gov. Haley Barbour has consistently said he opposes the expansion of gaming outside those areas that have already approved gaming. Pete Smith, press secretary for Barbour, pointed out that Barbour came out in opposition to gaming’s expansion when he was campaigning, and that his mind is unchanged.
“The governor’s position is that if counties did not approve gaming then, they don’t want it today, either,” Smith said.
So, it would appear that the residents of Jackson County will have the final say as to whether or not the proposed casino will be built. At press time, the MBCI was asking for a referendum in November 2008. And, as with just about every other aspect of the project, the proposed timing of the vote draws criticism.
“Why wait until then?” asked Crosby, who is an Ocean Springs resident and the only elected member on the local school board. “I say, let’s get a vote within the next, say, six months. If the answer is ‘no,’ then that’s that. If it passes, great.
“I ride down the streets of Ocean Springs, and every house has a mailbox. And, every mailbox represents an opinion. Let the people decide.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.