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Numbers indicate South River Region market in growth mode

Referred to by the Mississippi Gaming Commission (MGC) as the South River Region, the riverboat gaming markets of Vicksburg, Natchez and Greenville are an important component of Mississippi’s gaming industry.

According to MGC figures. as of September 30, 2006, the South River Region’s casinos employed 2,929 workers and totaled 193,559 square feet of gaming space (total square footage was 496,638).

Vicksburg has been and continues to be the largest of the three markets, and that market, which holds four of the region’s seven casinos, remains strong. However, Natchez and Greenville are in the process of a little “catch-up.”

Greenville has a new casino under construction, and the MGC approved the site of a new casino in Natchez February 16.

According to Larry Gregory, executive director of the MGC, some of the growth and interest in the region has been fueled, at least indirectly, by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“There continues to be interest in the Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez market. New projects are being proposed in each of these areas,” Gregory said. “Most importantly, recent legislation has afforded an incentive by allowing the casinos to be placed on pilings.

“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some of the conferences previously scheduled for the Gulf Coast were relocated to the Central Mississippi area. This introduced new people to that area. People liked what they saw and have been coming back.”

Two-boat city

Since the advent of gaming in Mississippi, the City of Natchez has remained a one-boat gaming market served by Isle of Capri. In 2005, it was announced that a new casino had chosen the city for a new gaming venue, which was projected to be in operation in late 2006.

Unfortunately, that project never came to fruition. But, hopes for a second Natchez casino have been revived with the MGC’s approved of the Roth Hill site for a casino resort development by Lane Company, an Atlanta-based multi-family real estate firm. (The city awarded Lane the land lease to the Roth Hill site in December 2006.)

According to Ted Doody, Lane’s Gulf Coast development partner, his company began looking at Natchez approximately six months ago. “We fell in love with the city, and saw great potential,” he added.

Details of the proposed Lane casino are still being developed, and Doody said a design team would be coming together over the next 30-60 days to work on the plans for the entire site.

And, half of that site will not be a casino at all. Lane has committed 50% of the site to a public park, and Doody said Lane would engage the local citizenry as to what the park will look like and offer. He did say that the city wanted a greater connection to the Mississippi River, and that the park would offer a natural setting that would provide just that.

Doody said the biggest task will be to ensure that the casino and park fit into Natchez’s existing beauty and charm. Gaming is not the primary tourist attraction or source of revenue in Natchez, but Doody said Lane was excited about the tourists who come to the city for its other offerings, tourists that Lane hopes to attract to its venue.

A number of other approvals must be obtained before the Lane project can move forward, so a target date for starting and wrapping up construction is not firm yet. However, Doody did say that Lane hopes to begin building by the end of this summer.

Bridge to new markets

While the City of Natchez is going through the process of landing another casino, the City of Greenville already has a new gaming resort underway, with an opening target date of the fall of this year.

Formerly called the Bali-Hai Casino Hotel, the Harlow Casino Resort is under construction on U.S. 82 near the new Mississippi River Bridge, which is expected to bring more travelers to the Port City. The complex will encompass 33,000 square feet of gaming space, hotel, entertainment center, restaurants and more.

The developers of Harlow Casino are Rick Schilling and Larry Holbrook of SW Gaming, LLC. Both men are familiar with gaming and the Delta. They developed the Splash! in Tunica, the first riverboat gaming facility in the North Delta river city. According to toplawyers.com/, Schilling and Holbrook plan on incorporating an art deco-style design reminiscent of “Hollywood’s Golden Age.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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