“The glory days are over, and we have to deal with that.”
That’s how Larry Gregory of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association assessed the state of gaming in Mississippi during Wednesday’s Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi.
Mississippi’s casinos have been on a rough ride in recent years – both financially and physically – but Mississippi lawmakers, officials and casino operators are taking steps to smooth the landscape – or will their moves only add to the turbulence.
Earlier this year, the Mississippi Gaming Commission amended the casino application system, upgrading the requirements for a new casino, but more importantly, extending the message that operators and owners must bring more to the table to get that license.
“I think it’ll have a positive effect,” Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “I think it will encourage existing properties to re-invest.”
“We just want a fair playing field,” said Larry Gregory of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association. “We don’t want newcomers coming in and cannibalizing the market, but on the flip side, we do encourage the competition. We’re not running from that. We want good projects that are going to bring more people to this market.”
“I don’t think it will have a negative effect,” said Dan McDaniel, a gaming lawyer with Baker Donelson. “I thing it hinges on how the rule interrupted by the gaming commission. I think the commission has to be really carefully on where it sets the standard for a new casino. Every dollar you put into the non-gaming themes makes it hard to finance the property.”
“I think market will dictate the response we’re going to get,” said Gregory. “There are so many economic challenges. I think it’s the status quo until we see the direction the Gulf Coast or Tunica market is going to take as a result of this tourism bill. We recognize we have to change our business model in our state.”
The tourism bill was passed during the recent legislative session and combined Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties into a Gulf Coast tourism board.
“We’re proud that happened,” said Gregory. “I think the magic bullet is knowing that visitors are going to have to come back. Tourism is the name of the game. The gaming has been good to us, but visitors are expecting more and wanting more.”
One of the harder hit areas has been the Tunica area, which has seen a drop in gross gaming revenues because of new competition, economic downturn and – most recently – the 2011 Mississippi River floods.
Taking advantage of the bad luck has been Southland Park in West Memphis, Ark., which is attracting former Mississippi customers with television ads depicting negative Mississippi stereotypes, such as crooked cops and chainsaw killers.
Now, the state is fighting back with its own ads.
“We’re trying to tackle that with, not a tit-for-tat approach, but with more positive ads about Mississippi,” said Gregory, who considers the negative ads insulting and sickening. “Plus, Tunica casinos are giving away $1 million every weekend.
“The word is getting out, and people are already crossing the line. Hopefully we can turn it around in the next quarter.”
But McDaniel sees another storm on the horizon, as the state government fights a growing tribal gaming industry and illegal bingo machines parlors in Alabama.
“I think they’re getting ready to have another push to legalize gaming in Alabama.”