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Gaming outlook positive as Coast rebuilds

Tunica — The outlook for gaming in Mississippi was positive by speakers and attendees at the Southern Gaming Summit May 4-5, 2006. Despite rainy weather, the 2,400 people registered for the conference were upbeat regarding this key industry in the state.

The conference, which attracts participants and vendors from several Southern and Midwestern states, is usually held in Biloxi but was moved to Tunica this year while the Coast Coliseum undergoes hurricane repairs.

“The number attending is down. We usually have about 5,000 on the Coast,” said Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association that sponsors the conference. “But, we are pleased to be in Tunica and grateful that people here stepped up to host this year’s summit.”

Keynote speaker Gov. Haley Barbour praised the industry that employs 40,000 people and contributes 10% of the state’s budget. Both figures are currently down because only three Gulf Coast casinos have reopened since the storm.

“We don’t have any counties that want gaming who don’t have it,” Barbour said. “Expansion was swept out of our minds by Katrina and we want all of the Coast casinos back open. Out of this devastation we get an opportunity to rebuild better.”

The governor reconfirmed his opposition to a state lottery and raising gaming taxes and his support of continued strict regulation of the industry. He said allowing casinos to move 800 feet on shore was not much geographically but was huge psychologically.

State Rep. Bobby Moak, who chairs the House Gaming Committee, says Katrina pushed land-based casinos but it would have happened in the future. “We would have been fighting about it in the Legislature,” he said. “After the storm, we had to ask what would gaming companies spend to rebuild on barges and pilings. By rebuilding on land, they are showing faith in the market.”

Moak said that lawmakers can’t get caught up in taxing casinos because they’re big business. He feels that growing the industry is better than taxing it. “A lot of us look at being the number three gaming destination and ask how do we become number two,” he added. “This (land-based casinos) will move us in that in direction.”

Congressman Bennie Thompson was the keynote speaker for the second day of the summit and also expressed support of the industry. His district is 380 miles long and is home to 23 casinos, more than any of the other congressional districts.

“I was an early supporter of gaming,” he said. “I’m pleased to have this industry in the state and to have the economic impact it brings to the counties of my district.”

Treasure Bay Casino owner Bernie Burkholder said he would be shocked if the Coast doesn’t have another three properties open this year. “The potential for growth is there and there’s a great pent-up demand for that business to come back to the level it was before Katrina,” he said.

However, others say the level will increase as better facilities and new facilities come online. Anthony Sanfilippo, president of the central division of Harrah’s Entertainment, says the giant gaming company’s investment in Biloxi will start at $1 billion.

“We have a great level of confidence in investing in Mississippi,” he said. “Decisions are being made quickly because Biloxi is using casinos as the catalyst to rebuild.”

Although Sanfilippo would not state any specific new projects, he confirmed that Harrah’s purchased the Casino Magic site in Biloxi from Pinnacle Entertainment and the Grand Casino Biloxi will open in the property’s Bayview Hotel by the end of summer.

“We’re extremely bullish on the Gulf Coast market and want Biloxi to be fully integrated and offer a variety of experiences for people,” he said.

Harrah’s owns three properties in Tunica where Sanfilippo said the market is flat. “Tunica County should be studied for what’s been done here and look at what we can do to attract people who’ve been going elsewhere,” he said.

Bacaran Bay Casino Resort is one of several new casino projects planned for Biloxi. Vice president of marketing Jeana Tribble said the $500-plus million property anticipates breaking ground this summer and opening in the fall of 2008.

“We have confidence in the city,” she said. “One of the most important things in the growth of the area is the expansion of the airport. It’s key to growth of the whole area. We will cater to all markets but a segment does rely on air transportation. We’re using the airport’s expansion in selling pre-construction condos.”

The Biloxi-Gulfport International Airport will spend more than $175 million in the next three years, according to marketing director Jim Pitts. “Within five years we have to be able to accommodate four and a half million passengers,” he said. “The Coast will become a tier one destination, and we have to be a tier one airport to accommodate that growth.”

Pitts said the airport is getting funding through the state’s congressional leadership who have done phenomenal work for the facility. Construction at the airport includes a terminal expansion; recovery projects for air cargo, general aviation, rental car and terminal upgrade; and new projects for the airfield, parking deck, roads and air traffic control tower.

Following Katrina, the airport was closed for 10 days, but Pitts said the numbers are doing well with boardings and ticket sales at 105% of pre-Katrina numbers.

Stephen B. Richer, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, says he’s operating in an optimistic environment as the area gets back on track to be the second most important gaming destination in the country.

“Look at Harrah’s investment. We’re well on our way in terms of a destination for all activities,” he said. “By 2009, we should have 30,000 rooms.”

Currently, only 6,300 rooms out of 17,500 are open on the Coast, Richer said.

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


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