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Despite challenges, gaming ‘strong and robust,’ Gregory says

In spite of high gasoline prices, a slowing economy and the threat of hurricanes, gaming revenue from state-licensed casinos continues to roll into state coffers.

Gross gaming revenues were $2.81 billion for the 12 months ending June 30, 2007, and $2.84 billion for the 12 months ending on June 30 this year, the end of the state’s fiscal year, for an increase of 1%. When July and August of 2008 are compared to those same months last year, there was a decline of $25 million, or -4.9%, statewide, according to figures from the Mississippi State Tax Commission.

However, August brought an increase for the Coast casinos that State Gaming Commission executive director Larry Gregory says doesn’t surprise him.

“The Mississippi market is strong and robust,” he said. “It adjusts well when there are economic challenges.”

Casino gross gaming revenues for the 11 properties on the Coast for August were $112,108,273 compared to $108,591.631 for that same month last year. Revenues for August this year were $126,021,002. for the river counties’ casinos, compared to $130,680,258 last year.

In Tunica County, Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the area is seeing a slight year-over-year decline in gaming revenue that is attributed to rising gas prices and overall economic conditions.

“The good news is that tourists are still visiting the destination as evidenced by the strong hotel occupancy rates in our 6,300 hotel rooms,” he said. “We view this as a strong sign that revenues will rebound as the economy improves, new product is developed and discretionary income becomes more readily available.”

Gregory agrees that gaming is not immune to the economic downturn. “But the effects have been minimal,” he said. “The river county properties were down a small percentage over the 2007 numbers, but given the rise in the price of gasoline, they are doing well.”

Gaming plays a major role to Tunica County’s economy, Franklin points out. In 1992 — the year the first casinos opened — there were 2,400 jobs in the county. Currently, there are 15,200 jobs.

“This is directly related to the gaming industry’s job creation and growth in Tunica, which has significantly increased the average wage, decreased unemployment and created $530 million in gaming tax revenues for Tunica County and $1 billion in gaming tax revenues for the State of Mississippi for the general fund since 1992,” he said.

Tom E. Van Hyning, research program manager with the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism, says gaming taxes (plus some fees) comprised approximately $185.85 million, or 4%, of Mississippi’s $4.69 billion General Fund for the 12 months ending June 30, 2007.

“For the 12-month cycle ending June 30, 2008, it appears that gaming taxes will comprise $194 million of our state’s General Fund,” he said. “More likely, the $194 million should again be about 4% of the General Fund. Gross gaming revenues for coastal region casinos have bounced back.”

Van Hyning provided information stating there were 29 state-licensed casinos during fiscal year 2008, and they employed 26,800 people. Another 3,450 persons worked at 28 casino hotels. The annual payroll for both casino and casino hotel jobs was $849 million for the year. The Coast has one less casino than prior to Hurricane Katrina and has 46.3% of the statewide total of casino/hotel employees.

“The gaming industry is one of the state’s largest employers with nearly 30,000 employees,” Gregory said. “Thankfully, there have been minimal layoffs in the gaming industry. Historically, the industry has been a stable source of jobs for our state.”

In addition to the millions in gaming taxes transferred to the state’s general fund, $114.6 million was collected in city and county tax revenues in gaming jurisdictions for fiscal 2008.

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

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