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Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez gaming markets growing slowly

Sometimes referred to as the Mississippi Miracle, the state’s gaming industry has grown into a $2.8-billion industry since its beginning in the early 1990s. The regulatory approach modeled after Nevada’s successful free market system of unlimited licensing is often cited as a major reason for that growth.

Growth in revenue and gaming properties has been primarily in the larger Gulf Coast and Tunica markets. What’s happening in the three smaller markets of Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez along the Mississippi River?

“I don’t foresee any aggressive growth for Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez,” said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “Over the last year we have seen growing interest in the Vicksburg market. There could be some growth there. Construction is underway for a third casino in Greenville, and competition will be good for that area.”

He added that the Gulf Coast is and will be in a period of growth for at least the near future as it recovers from Hurricane Katrina. Many of the newly reopened properties have plans to expand their facilities. Due in part to the legislation that offers some protection against future storms, there is renewed interest in building new projects.

“The Tunica market is showing some signs of growth. Since Hurricane Katrina, the river county market has shown about a 10% increase over 2005,” he said. “With the airport expansion and the opening of Interstate 69, the potential for even more growth is definitely there.”

Gaming attorney Danny McDaniel of the Phelps Dunbar law firm in Jackson says there will be a little growth in the small markets.

“Southwest Gaming’s project, the Harlow Casino Resort, is underway in Greenville. They have their approvals and financing, and site work has begun,” he said. “This new casino is right beside the new river bridge. The new bridge is so much better than the old one and that will help. Like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.”
It’s the location factor that keeps the Natchez market from growing, says McDaniel, who is currently serving as president of the International Gaming Attorneys Association. “There’s been a casino proposed for a long time in Natchez, but there’s no interstate going to Natchez. It’s hard to grow that market,” he said. “It’s isolated, which is the very thing most people like about it.”

Jack Sours, general manager of the Isle of Capri — Natchez’s only casino — agrees that the city known for its antebellum mansions and pilgrimage tours is somewhat isolated.

“All the major feeder markets, including Jackson and Baton Rouge, are served by other casinos,” he said. “Still, we get a lot of tourists at our casino and we’re always looking at additional opportunities.”

Sours, who came to Natchez 10 months ago, says the economy is picking up in the area, partly due to the permanent relocation of a significant number of Katrina evacuees.

“Because we don’t have an interstate, I don’t see the potential for more casinos, but the Isle does well here,” he said.

The Emerald Star is the proposed new casino for Natchez, and general manager Wendy Grandin says things are coming along well. “We’re not at a point to publish any opening dates,” she said, “and the name is being reviewed as we move forward.”

McDaniel says there are two or three proposed projects on the drawing board for Vicksburg in addition to those in Natchez and Greenville. “We’ll have to wait and see if they come to fruition,” he said. “I don’t have an explanation why casinos don’t locate more in these places. There won’t be billion-dollar casinos but as long as the market stays vibrant in the state and there is no limit on the number of licenses, they will be steady, sound markets.”

In Vicksburg, where Curt Follmer is senior vice president/general manager of Rainbow Casino, a Bally Technologies property, he says the lack of amenities slows gaming growth. He came to Vicksburg 11 years ago and says gaming is a boost to the economy there, but he is concerned about market growth in the Warren County city. There are four casinos there with an approximate $250 million annual market. Two new properties are proposed.

“Vicksburg needs non-gaming amenities to extend people’s stay,” he said. “There won’t be significant growth without that. Growth on the Coast will be tremendous. It might hurt the Vicksburg market, but it will be very good for the state.”

Nor does he predict growth in the Tunica and Greenville markets, reiterating that gaming growth will be focused in the Coastal counties.
Active in the Casino Operators Association, Follmer currently serves as vice chairman and was president of the Mississippi Gaming Association before the two organizations merged.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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