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Growth will continue in industry, says MGC’s Larry Gregory

Gaming is a $2.8-billion industry in Mississippi, employing thousands of residents, fueling the economy and bringing millions of dollars into state coffers. It is also a highly regulated industry with the Mississippi Gaming Commission as the lead state agency. At the helm of the commission is executive director Larry Gregory, a position he assumed in 2001 after serving in two other positions with the commission. The gaming commission has 145 staff members.

Gregory also served in upper management positions with the State Personnel Board, Department of Transportation and the Legislature. A native of Jackson, he served four years in the United States Air Force.

He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s degree in public policy and administration from Mississippi State University, plus a certificate of paralegal studies from Mississippi College.

A commentator and speaker for numerous forums, conferences and civic clubs, Gregory attributes the success of the gaming industry to solid regulation and a sound business approach. He has appeared on numerous news programs, including “The Bloomberg Report” and “Fox News Live,” as well as on CNBC, PBS and MSNBC, updating the nation on the state’s recovery. The International Masters of Gaming Law named him the 2005 Regulator of the Year.

Gregory and his wife, Mollie, live in Jackson with their daughter, Fran, who was born in August 2006. They are members of Trinity Presbyterian Church.

The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Gregory for a few questions about the gaming industry in Mississippi.

Mississippi Business Journal: Mississippi had an eventful year in 2005. How would you summarize it?

Larry Gregory: I guess I would summarize 2005 as a year of change. There were definitely some trials and triumphs in my personal and professional life. I was diagnosed with a brain tumor, had surgery the first week of August and then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29 — my second week back to work.

In my position as executive director, we were working hard to open the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, the first new casino since the Beau Rivage in 1999. The soft opening was scheduled for August 31. When I saw the magnitude of the storm, I knew my job would never be the same.

In October of 2005, House Bill 45 was signed into law allowing Coast casinos to be onshore. That was a bold step that will forever change the Coast casino market. By the end of the year, three properties were re-opened and we were well on our way to recovery.

MBJ: What was the most stressful thing about 2005 for you?

LG: The most stressful thing was not being able to make things better faster. Rebuilding in the face of that kind of destruction would have to take time, and people were suffering during that time. That was hard. My own employees in the Biloxi office were suffering, and I felt I could not do enough to help.

MBJ: What helped you get through it?

LG: The leadership given by Jerry St. Pé, chairman of the State Gaming Commission, and the hard work of my staff got me through one of the most difficult years of my life. My faith in God and the support of my wife, Mollie, gave me strength in the days just after the storm. The people of Mississippi are strong. I am ever impressed at their concern for each other and the ability to look forward and not behind.

MBJ: Regarding the gaming industry, what kind of year is 2006?

LG: 2006 has been a year of recovery and rebuilding for the Gulf Coast market. By the end of this year, 10 properties will have reopened and nearly 14,000 casino employees will have returned to work.

There has never been more interest in the Gulf Coast, more than in the early 1990s. It has been a year of hard work for everyone involved; a year of coming together for the owners, employees and all levels of government.

The numbers for September are the highest for any September since gaming became legal. This kind of recovery would not have been imaginable a year ago. The devastation gave them a chance to create a whole new concept for their development.

It has been an exciting and challenging year.

MBJ: How do you see the future of the industry statewide?

LG: The future looks very bright for Mississippi gaming. In the early 1990s, investors were cautious about the success gaming would have in Mississippi. Today investors see that we have a solid, steady tax base, one that is fair and has not changed since 1990.

We have a business-friendly environment that encourages competition and growth. With the tax incentives on the Gulf Coast and the new interstate making the Tunica area easier to access, we can expect to see new entries into the market.

MBJ: Where will there be gaming growth?

LG: The Gulf Coast is and will be in a period of growth for at least the near future. 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. With the airport expansion and the opening of Interstate 69, the potential for even more growth is definitely there.

MBJ: Do you foresee any growth for the smaller markets of Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez?

LG: I don’t foresee any aggressive growth for the smaller markets. 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. Competition will be good for that area.

MBJ: What is the biggest challenge facing the industry?

LG: The biggest challenge for the industry is expanding the market within Mississippi. Each year other states introduce or expand gaming as a source of revenue. The competition is constant.

The industry needs to concentrate on supporting amenities such as world class restaurants, entertainment venues, convention space and other things that attract tourism. Mississippi doesn’t want to be known as a gaming destination but rather a tourist destination. Unlike Vegas where ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ but rather what happens in Mississippi is told around the world.

MBJ: If you weren’t serving in this capacity, what do you think you would be doing?

LG: I think I probably would still be in state government. Having been a state employee for the past 18 years, it is hard to picture myself in the private sector. Most of those years have been spent in upper management positions. I love to manage people and help them achieve their goals both personally and professionally.

MBJ: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

LG: Probably that I really enjoy shopping for antiques. I can spend hours at flea markets or auctions.

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

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