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Coast recovery, off-reservation tribal gaming hot topics during 14th-annual Southern Gaming Summit

The 14th edition of the Southern Gaming Summit returned to Biloxi this year after hurricane damage forced the event to be held in Tunica last year. Billed as the largest gaming trade show outside Las Vegas, the conference and expo is sponsored by the Mississippi Casino Operators Association and Ascend Media Gaming Group.

The summit brought together operators, vendors, investors, regulators and gaming employees for timely panel discussions, keynote addresses and a sellout exhibit hall featuring the latest products and services for the industry.

Hot, hot, hot

The hottest topics of discussion were the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans and off-reservation tribal gaming.

Although representatives of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws did not participate on the panels, their presence was felt. References were made to the tribe’s proposal to develop a gaming facility on land they own in Jackson County.

Speakers from Louisiana and Mississippi painted an optimistic picture of the area’s economic recovery, but also listed challenges.

Jon Lucas, president and general manager of the IP Casino, Resort and Spa, said the Coast’s gaming facilities are building back better. “Las Vegas generates more money from non-gaming amenities, and that’s what Mississippi needs to do,” he said. “That will enable us to grow the market. Cooperation of gaming and other sectors has grown as an offshoot of the tragedy, and that’s a refreshing change.”

Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau director Steve Richer touted legislation allowing casinos onshore and the federal Gulf Opportunity Zone Act for making it possible to invest money in the area.

“We are focused on tourism and more things to do here with a goal of becoming a tier-one destination,” he said. “The goal is to have more rooms, more meeting space and more direct and connecting air flights.”

Craig Ray, director of the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division, affirmed that all of Mississippi is recovering from the disaster. There are currently 750,200 direct jobs in tourism with a $1.4-billion payroll and $5.2-billion visitor expenditures. The golf product is increasing with more than 150 courses now open to the public statewide.

“Gaming is a big part of that,” he said. “We anticipate that we’ll be up at least 10% in every category when this fiscal year ends.”

Noting that rebirth and renaissance are the headline on the Coast, Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, gave a historical picture of the area. He listed Hurricane Katrina with the Civil War, the flood of 1927, the Great Depression and Hurricane Camille as tragic milestones.

“The key components to our recovery are the resiliency of our people, the leadership from our public officials and the involvement of the private sector,” he said. “Certainly gaming is at the forefront of investment and provided some normalcy early on by opening with jobs, restaurants and meeting space.”

Moderator Jerry St. Pé, chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, asked each panel member for a brief answer to the question, “What’s at the top of your to-do list?”

The answers were: Lucas, continued expansion; Sanderson, short-term housing; Richer, aggressive marketing; and Ray, more advertising dollars.

Pros and cons

Tribal gaming was addressed by a panel that included a gaming lawyer, tribal leaders from tribes outside Mississippi, an official from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the director of the National Indian Gaming Association. Moderator Wilson Pipestem, managing partner of Ietan Consulting of Washington, D.C., stated that the Choctaw tribe was invited to participate but declined.

George Skibine of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said there is a lot of discretion for landless tribes seeking to restore lands in trust for establishing gaming. Although there are 34 pending applications for off-reservation gaming, only three tribes in the past 19 years have been successful in establishing such gaming sites.

Jason Giles, a member of the Creek Nation, said media hype is driving the fear of off-reservation gaming. “There is no impending doom,” he said. “Many of these applications are attempting to reconcile tribal wrongs for lands stolen over the years. People living on these lands will not have to pack up and leave…but that is something familiar to tribes.”

He added that tribes wanting to go back to tribal lands or wanting to locate close to reservations have a better chance of establishing off-reservation sites. “That puts the Department of the Interior in a tough situation,” he said, “and the governors of the states who must agree and who want economic vitality.”

Looming disaster?

Gaming attorney Dan M. McDaniel Jr. of Phelps Dunbar law firm in Jackson said, “Gaming on reservation land is a good thing, but the pendulum has swung way past that now and is a totally different issue if land is bought as a site for gaming where there’s already gaming.”

He said Choctaw gaming in Jackson County would be disastrous for the Coast, noting that the tribe will not pay a gaming tax to the state of 12% of gross revenues as the other casinos do.

“The tribe will have the tax advantage and a geographic advantage of being right off Interstate 10,” he said. “It’s especially not good at a time when the area is trying to recover and rebuild. I challenge the others on the panel to tell me how this is fair to the citizens of the state.”

McDaniel also questioned the lack of regulation of tribal gaming, to which other members of the panel outlined the various levels of oversight that Indian gaming has.

The exhibition hall featured vendors representing every segment of the industry. All of the latest wizardry in slot machines and table games was on display, along with casino seating, uniforms, accessories, services and food and beverage options.

Beverly Martin, executive director of the Casino Operators Association, said the gaming show was pleased to be back in Biloxi in the refurbished Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center.

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


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