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Smaller markets see uptick in activity, new casinos opening

Compared to Tunica and the Coast, the state regulated gaming jurisdictions located along the Mississippi River are small and have experienced slower growth. However, things are happening in Natchez, Vicksburg and Greenville. A new casino opened last November in Greenville, a fourth one is under construction in Vicksburg and a second casino plans to open in Natchez this summer.

When Harlow’s Casino opened in Greenville, it upped the ante for the two casinos that were already there, according to gaming attorney Danny McDaniel of the Phelps Dunbar, LLP, law firm in Jackson.

“Harlow’s is doing quite well,” he said. “It moved into a market where there had been no upgrades for years. The new casino is a new product; has a hotel and a show room with entertainment. That will force the others to upgrade.”

He says the opening of the new Mississippi River Bridge may have an impact on the Greenville gaming market, allowing better access for Arkansas residents. “The market is small and underserved, and we’re getting ready to see if another casino might come in and make it,” he added. “There’s talk of another one coming in.”

But Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, has no knowledge of another casino in Greenville at this time. There are new projects on the horizon, but they are too early in the development process to discuss.

“The small river counties market have the fewest number of casinos compared to the rest of the state,” he said. “This market has been steady with little growth in the past year. However, I expect a new casino to open in Natchez and Vicksburg in 2008. These two additions along with the opening of Harlow’s in Greenville should give a significant boost to this market.”

Community connection

With an anticipated opening of late July or early August this summer, the Grand Soliel Casino will end the monopoly of the Isle of Capri in the Natchez market. Director of marketing Baxter Lee says the name, French for “great sun,” was chosen out of many options because it represents a great chief of the Natchez Indians.

“It gives us connectivity with Natchez and allows us to use it in all our marketing efforts,” he said. “I’m confident we will do well.”

The gaming vessel, a paddlewheel river boat, is being outfitted at the Port of Natchez, but will be permanently docked just south of the Mississippi River Bridge. Lee says construction at the gaming site is 70% complete. Crews have just finished the second floor of the hotel, located on the bluff where the Ramada Inn stood for many years. The hotel will have 124 rooms and suites, and there will be six rooms at The Briars, a bed and breakfast inn on the property that was built in 1814. The gaming boat will feature 850 slot machines, 19 table games and a live poker room with six tables.

“The markets changed in Mississippi and Louisiana with the population shifts that happened after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” Lee said. “Our feasibility studies show there’s definitely room for another casino in Natchez. We want the market to grow as a destination as Vicksburg did with its four casinos and Greenville with its three.”

He also says research indicates the market will accept a third casino. Gregory says a third one in the development process is tentatively called Roth Hill. McDaniel doesn’t think the isolated Natchez market, with no interstate highway running through it, will have room for two new casinos.

Market growth

Located on Interstate 20 and the Mississippi River, Vicksburg will have a fourth casino opening this year if construction proceeds on RiverWalk Casino. Curt Folmer is general manager of Rainbow Casino, which has been in operation in Vicksburg for a number of years and will share a parking lot with the new facility. These are the only two properties within walking distance of each other, and he hopes that will create synergy for guests.

“The opening of the new casino will grow the market to some degree, but it’s debatable if there will be 20% growth,” he said. “I don’t foresee another casino coming here. The economy is a big factor. I’m not sure we’re recession proof anymore.”

Folmer says Vicksburg had a post-Katrina surge, but that’s over now. “We’re doing quite well, but the market is flat,” he added.

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


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