Buffett to personally greet first Margaritaville guests this evening

BILOXI — Jimmy Buffett says he knows how to put on a show. Supporters of the Margaritaville casino in Biloxi are counting on it as the gambling hall opens today.

Margaritaville is among the smallest casinos approved by Mississippi regulators in recent years, raising concerns that it would steal business from competitors in the market, not bring in fresh visitors.

But investors are looking to Buffett’s “Parrothead” fans, who have bolstered his restaurant empire, to flock to the Gulf Coast.

“The brand of Margaritaville is extremely powerful,” said John Hairston of Gulfport, who sits on the three-member Mississippi Gaming Commission “The power of that brand deserved the risk we took by allowing a casino on the small side.”

The test begins at 5 p.m. today, when Buffett, playing off the title to his song “It’s a Five O’Clock Somewhere,” will welcome invited guests. Doors open to the public at 8 p.m.

“It looks like the way the world of leisure has evolved, people look at gambling as a form of escapism,” Buffett told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I’m well-experienced in the art of escapism.”

Investors have put in $62 million into the casino and are hiring about 1,000 employees. That doesn’t sound small, but it pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the Mississippi coast’s largest casinos, the Beau Rivage and the IP. In terms of money, the whole investment isn’t that much larger than the $53 million that the Palace Casino sank into renovations that concluded earlier this year.

Unlike some other states, Mississippi doesn’t limit the number of casinos that can locate in the state. But the Gaming Commission does decide whether a site and an applicant are suitable. That has evolved into a requirement that new entrants bring new business to the state, instead of stealing it from incumbent casinos. For example, a group wanting to build a casino called Harbor Town in Gulfport has been twice turned down by the Gaming Commission this year, saying their casino wouldn’t add anything to the existing market.

“Any new project coming in, should bring something new and different,” said Gaming Commission chairman Jerry St Pe of Pascagoula. “Bring something in so it will grow, so ultimately we don’t have a point of saturation.”

Not everyone is sure that Margaritaville, which won’t have a hotel, meets that requirement.

“They broke the rules that sort of said you have to be clearly additive to the market,” said Scott Fischer, president of Leisure Dynamics Research. “Not having hotel rooms kind of limits the distance you can pull people from.”

Fischer said he’s also concerned that Margaritaville, five blocks north of U.S. 90 on Biloxi Bay, may be too far away from the city’s other casinos.

Others, though, say that Buffett’s previous business success shows that the casino will work. His empire of partnerships and licensed goods has grown to include restaurants, Landshark beer, a hotel, a satellite radio station, even packaged foods, shoes and blenders.

The idea of linking Buffett up to a casino has been bouncing around for almost a decade. Buffett said he was led to gambling when Emeril Lagasse told him that Lagasse’s Las Vegas restaurants saw a business boom when Buffett played in Las Vegas. That led to a Margaritaville cafe in the gambling center, and then its host, the Flamingo casino, suggested a small Margaritaville casino, which opened last fall. Different owners are building a larger Margaritaville casino and hotel in Bossier City, La.

In Biloxi, Caesars Entertainment announced plans for a $700 million Margaritaville casino on the beach in 2007, but scrapped that in the face of the recession.

Other investors, though, stepped in to build the smaller development. Tom Brosig, president and CEO of the current enterprise, said he and investors were not looking to build a megaresort.

“We’re not a high-roller joint,” he said. “We’re not trying to compete with the Beau Rivage.”

Danny Davila, an investor, said modest scale means Margaritaville doesn’t have to grab much business to profit.

“There is, I think, some growth that we can capture,” Davila said. “We don’t really need a lot to be an economic success from our standpoint.”

Margaritaville also starts with an existing network of music fans and restaurant patrons, giving it customers to market to.

“We hasten to point out that it’s not simply a casino,” Davila said. “It dovetails nicely with the strategy of having that big brand, that lifestyle brand.”

The lifestyle means that unlike most casinos, Margaritaville’s slot machines feature a view of the water. It also means sprawling outdoor patios meant to be cool enough for customers to hang out during the Gulf Coast’s sweltering summer.

And there’s going to be a floor show involving two of Buffett’s other hits “Volcano” and the namesake song “Margaritaville.” A waitress is supposed to climb up a rumbling volcano and then slide down into a giant margarita blender.

Buffett said that he’s been involved in the theming, and thinks the gambling hall will appeal to his fans.

“The gamble and the risk is, pardon the pun, to see if that’s the same thing they want in a casino,” he said.

 

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