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With construction underway, Natchez casino encounters more resistance

December 15th, 2011 No comments

The Roth Hill Casino in Natchez is already technically under construction, with piles being driven into the ground.

I’ve covered the ins and outs of this oft-delayed project for over a year now. The last time I spoke with the CEO of Premier Gaming, whose company is managing the project, he seemed pretty confident that the casino had cleared its last hurdle.

A story in today’s Natchez Democrat,though, throws cold water on that notion. The Natchez Preservation Commission laid out several concerns about the overall design in a Wednesday night meeting. The story even quotes former MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown, who has already made known his intentions to run for Natchez Mayor next year.

It doesn’t look good for the casino. Read the entire story here.

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Roth Hill casino gets go-ahead in Natchez

November 27th, 2011 No comments

In early 2008, developers of a planned casino on Natchez’s Roth Hill appeared before the Mississippi Gaming Commission and got site approval for the project.

Almost four years and a few delays later, Premier Gaming Group received from the MGC at its October meeting permission to begin construction, said Allen Godfrey, the Commission’s executive director.

Receiving permission to build means Premier Gaming, a Kentucky-based casino development company that is spearheading the project, has secured financing for the $43 million project. Kevin Preston, Premier Gaming CEO, wrote in an email to the Mississippi Business Journal last week that construction started the day after the MGC lent its approval. The first step was to drive piles into the ground, he said.

“We’re anticipating a 10-month build,” Preston wrote. The casino could be open by next fall, under that timeline.

That’s a couple years after the original opening date. Premier Gaming was hired to manage the project after the original developers – Natchez Enterprises and the Lane Company – could not secure financing for the project in 2008 as the economy froze the commercial credit markets.

Plans for the casino stalled. Earlier this year, the development group re-upped on its lease of the city-owned property on Roth Hill. The company will begin making lease payments once the casino is open.

The lack of progress caused a stir among Natchez aldermen earlier this year. That group voted to notify Premier Gaming that it was not in compliance of its lease agreement with the city. Lease terms called for significant progress to be made on the project within six months of the agreement being executed in early 2008, including the company locking down financing.

The delays fostered confusion among city officials and Premier Gaming about whether the company actually held a 99-year lease on the property – as Premier Gaming claimed – or if it was merely a lease option.

Natchez  Alderman Dan Dillard told the Mississippi Business Journal earlier this year that Premier Gaming only held a lease option on the property, which had been voided because of the lack of progress on the project. Specifically, financing for the project had yet to be firmed up, as had an approval to build from the MGC.

“My side of the argument is, they didn’t provide substantial progress during the option period, so the option does not just morph into a lease,” Dillard said in February. “That’s been my concern the whole time.”

The parties brokered a deal over the summer that extended the lease-option agreement another six months while Premier Gaming worked to secure financing so it could present details to the MGC.

That agreement was about a month away from expiring when the project got MGC’s approval to proceed with construction.

Roth Hill sits on Natchez’s riverfront and is a part of the Natchez Trails project, a recreation area that winds up and down the city’s bluff highlighting Natchez’s history. The Roth Hill casino will be Natchez’s third casino, joining the Isle of Capri Casino and Hotel and the Grand Soleil Casino and Resort.

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Coast candidates have tough hills to climb (literally)

August 3rd, 2011 1 comment

Until graduation from Ole Miss, I lived in North Mississippi. Ackerman, Starkville, Pontotoc and then Oxford.

I still have kin in Ackerman, Starkville and Pontotoc. Even though Jackson is where my house and office are, the hill country is home, and always will be.

With that background, I’ve known for many years that folks in North Mississippi — more specifically, Northeast Mississippi — don’t think much of the Coast, as a general rule. Consequently, they don’t think much of statewide candidates from the Coast. The reasons are varied. The Coast is too much like Louisiana, and Louisiana has New Orleans, so the Coast is like New Orleans, and that makes it bad.

Then there are the casinos, which are a major hang-up for some of my relatives. The Coast has the casinos, they surmise, so candidates from there are in cahoots with the gambling business, and that makes them bad. Never mind that most every elected official from the hill country is pro-casino in one form or another. That’s not the point, and it’s also not the point to poor-mouth folks for having a bias against the Coast. That street runs both ways.

The point is this: No matter how hard they work or how much money they spend, statewide candidates from the Coast do not stand a chance in North Mississippi. Period.

Tuesday’s elections made me believe that more than ever. In the northernmost vote-rich areas, Billy Hewes and Dave Dennis were wiped out at the ballot box.

In the GOP primary for governor, Phil Bryant won DeSoto (80%), Lee (66%) and Lowndes (74%) counties comfortably. Take a look at that DeSoto total again. It’s not a misprint.

The Republican primary for lieutenant governor didn’t go any better for Hewes. Tate Reeves easily won DeSoto (65%), Lee (62%) and Lowndes (65%).

Those numbers held true in the smaller counties, too.

It doesn’t matter if you win other vote-rich GOP counties like Madison and Rankin and Lauderdale, all of which Dennis and Hewes lost. If you get beat that badly in North Mississippi, your campaign is sunk. There’s no other way around it.

It’s not like Hewes and Dennis didn’t spend time and money up north either. I know they did. The first time I interviewed Dennis was more than 18 months ago, and he was on his way back from speaking to (if memory serves) the Tupelo Rotary Club.

Hewes’ and Dennis’ individual campaign itineraries that arrived daily in my inbox on plenty of occasions had Southaven, Tupelo, Columbus, New Albany, Batesville, Ripley, wherever – name a town, it was on there.

I didn’t expect Hewes and Dennis to win any of those counties, because Bryant and Reeves had big advantages in money and name-recognition, but those margins look made-up.

Will there be a Coast candidate on the statewide ballot in 2015?

Can anybody break the Curse of North Mississippi?

The numbers say no.

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Vicksburg, and its waterfront, brace for the worst

May 9th, 2011 1 comment

If you’ve read this week’s edition of the Mississippi Business Journal, hopefully you’ve seen the story we did on how Vicksburg’s business community is handling the threat, tangible and otherwise, the flood is presenting.

Other than the companies that make their living off the Mississippi River, the majority of Vicksburg’s businesses will remain untouched by the water, thanks to the city’s bluff.

One retail outlet that is in immediate danger is Discount Furniture Barn, which sits on Jackson Street right next to the River, and whose owner, Mary Landers, was quoted at length in our story. Magnolia Marketplace and a photographer visited Landers at her shop last Wednesday afternoon. The water was maybe 60 yards from her front door step. Judging by a photo we saw Monday morning on the Vicksburg Post’s website, it seems to have arrived at her building, or at least gotten really close. We called the number listed for Discount Furniture; it rang unanswered.

Up the bluff, the Washington Street business corridor hopes tourists aren’t too freaked out by media coverage and stay away, mistakenly thinking all of Vicksburg is submerged. It’s not. The waterfront, where the casinos are, is, or will be shortly. The Military Park is high and dry, as are every department store and restaurant.

They’ll stay that way, too. To repeat: Vicksburg is not underwater. Unless you had a tugboat cruise lined up, you shouldn’t change your travel plans. The Mississippi Coast suffered through all last summer with the national media’s screams of oil-drenched beaches, when that simply wasn’t the case.

Here’s hoping Vicksburg and its sister River cities don’t go through the same thing this summer.

Natchez casino developers hope deal reached with city by April 7

March 23rd, 2011 1 comment

We’ve written a couple stories recently about the stalled casino project on Natchez’s famed Roth Hill.

In early February, Natchez aldermen determined via 5-1 vote that the developers had failed to comply with the terms of the lease option agreement that was forged three years ago — namely, that they had failed to show sufficient progress on the project. In reality, there has been little tangible progress made since February 2008, only planning and design work.

Included in the failure-to-comply resolution was a letter from the city to Premier Gaming Group, the Lane Company and Natchez Enterprises that gave them until April 7 to come into compliance.

We’ve been trying to nail down an interview with Kevin Preston, president of Premier Gaming, for nearly a month now. We’ve traded emails, but getting him on the phone has been, well, a challenge. In one of the emails he sent in response to an interview request, Preston said he understood the frustration city officials felt, adding that Premier Gaming had no intention of abandoning the $45 million project, which they’ve been working on for two years after Lane and Natchez Enterprises brought the Kentucky-based company on board to revive the project. It had stalled in 2008 as the recession spread. “Our goal is to finalize funding and construct a first-class gaming facility Natchez can be proud of,” Preston wrote.

In another email Preston sent yesterday, he said he had actually been in Natchez the past few days, and was confident that a resolution would be reached by April 7, the deadline set in the letter.

What kind of agreement he’s talking about is anybody’s guess.

How healthy are we? And how are our casinos doing? We’re about to find out

January 19th, 2011 No comments

It’s report card time.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., the Mississippi State Medical Association will unveil Mississippi’s 2011 Public Health Report Card at the Capitol. The event is in conjunction with MSMA Alliance’s sixth annual Capitol Screening Initiative, which offers free health screenings to legislators and Capitol staff.

We’ll learn where we stand on health indicators like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, infant mortality, drug and tobacco use by teens, and a few others. As has been the case for what seems like forever, we’re probably not doing very well with any of those, at least statistically. Like Weird Al sang, We’re fat and we know it. But we’ll see.

And come Monday, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, will release the results of a study the Stennis Institute did that compares our casino industry with that of other states. “An Overview for Decision-Makers,” is what it’s called. If Flaggs is heading this thing up, it will at least be entertaining.

Magnolia Marketplace will be at each event, and we’ll let you know the particualars as soon as we can. In the meantime, be healthy and be lucky.


 

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