“We have had more interest in the past 30 days for new operators than in the past 12 months,” said Gaming Commission member John Hairston, “so the future appears very encouraging. Most inquiries have been for very positive developments.”
Hairston said there is room for more casinos on the Coast “but they must add to the total revenue pie rather than redistribute what we already have.”
Any new casino needs to add value and visitors, he said.
The credit markets are clearly thawing, said Hairston, who is chief executive officer of Hancock Bank.
“However, the lack of development has been tied more to investor confidence in the economy and consumer comfort with discretional spending than a simple lack of credit,” he said.
He thinks creditworthy businesses are missing an opportunity by not borrowing.
“Banks are flush with liquidity — and they eagerly want to lend it — but businesses have low confidence in the economy. The combination of low rates, eager banks and the 30 percent rebate to the hospitality industry via a 10-year tax abatement makes the Mississippi Coast a tremendous place to borrow and invest right now.”
The Gaming Commission’s reports from 2000 to 2009 show the number of visitors at coast casinos declined over the past decade. Hairston thinks the numbers don’t represent what the Gaming Commission is hearing from casinos.
That could be because there’s no longer a security guard with a clicker counting each person who enters a casino. Now, he said, the numbers are calculated by a combination of player-card usage and hotel check-ins.
The number of casino hotel rooms remains 1,800 below pre-Katrina levels, said Scott King, director of research and policy for the Gulf Coast Business Council.
“If you don’t have as many hotel rooms, you can’t accommodate as many visitors,” King said.
South Mississippi still is a drive-in market, but casinos are being more aggressive and flying in players, said Jeremiah Gerald, director of air service and business development at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
The number of people flying out of Gulfport was down 17 percent in 2009, airport director Bruce Frallic said, but charter flights were up 187 percent — in large part because of the casinos.
“We’re probably one of the biggest charter airports in the country,” Gerald said.
Beau Rivage Casino has increased the number of passengers it is flying to South Mississippi by about 1,000 per month, and Gerald said the Grand Casino Biloxi and IP Casino Resort also are also doing regular charters and other Coast casinos are booking seats.
“There has definitely been an increase in gaming passengers,” he said.
Of the 31,000 passengers flying out of Gulfport each month, more than 8,000 are booked by the casinos. That’s in addition to those who book their own casino vacations, and vendors who do business with coast casinos.
Keith Smith, Boyd Gaming Corporation president and American Gaming Association chairman, said 2010 will be a rebuilding year for casinos, “one that is marked by both gradual growth and continued innovation.”
He said Atlantic City’s position as the dominant casino market along the East Coast has been challenged, as are jurisdictions in other areas.
“Ultimately, however, competition breeds innovation,” Smith said, and casinos will need to find ways to provide experiences their customers can’t find elsewhere.
Hairston said in response to the challenges from other states, “We simply need to make sure we have more to do on the Coast than just gaming. We need a great destination that draws many more visitors than we had before, and not all from drive-in.”
Richard Forester, director of Mississippi Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the charm, heritage and history of South Mississippi set it apart as a casino market.
“I don’t want us to be Atlantic City, I don’t want us to be Vegas,” he said.
“There’s something genuine about our destination that you don’t find in these other, manufactured, destinations.”