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Southern Gaming Summit participants optimistic about future

The 15th-annual Southern Gaming Summit earlier this month brought several thousand people to Biloxi, including gaming executives and employees, regulators, analysts, vendors, developers and representatives of financial institutions and other businesses.

State gaming regulators from Mississippi, Louisiana, New Jersey and Wisconsin presented a panel discussion on a wide range of issues, including the economy’s effect on the industry.

“Gaming is not directly affected but we may see some indirect jobs cut. Our gaming numbers are good. The industry here is still robust,” said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “We’ve had single digit growth but any growth is good.”

He thought gaming might take a hit when gas hit $2 per gallon but that didn’t happen. “People who like to game will continue to come, and casinos are helping other businesses,” he added.

The challenge to include casinos’ non-gaming construction in the state’s tax incentives for tourism remains on the front burner, according to Biloxi attorney Ron Peresich. “We have been fighting the battle to get tax incentives for them like we have for all other tourism business, and like other states have,” he said. “We have another chance to pass it in the special session the governor is going to call.”

Gregory is not optimistic about the measure. “It’s very difficult to get anything about gaming passed here,” he said. “It’s an obstacle we face.”

Going global

He also discussed the demands of an increasing global economy. “It’s very challenging for regulators to investigate foreign countries such as Dubai which is going into business with MGM,” he said. “We’re looking at a huge burden and expense to investigate foreign entities to conduct gaming in Mississippi. How do you investigate a country?”

The director recounted a visit to his Jackson office from a sheik from Dubai. “We normally request income tax returns but Dubai doesn’t have that,” he said. “It’s very complex and sticky. This is a government and the potential is there to cause diplomatic problems.”

Just as Nevada is doing with foreign countries, this investigation, and possibly others, will be out sourced, something the commission has not heretofore done.

“We have faced and overcome challenges before, such as ticket in/ticket out slot payments and investigating private equity lenders,” Gregory said. “I’m sure we can get through this too.”

In a general session on building a destination on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, tourism and business leaders spoke of progress the area is making to reach the next destination level.

Learning how to adapt

“With our recovery we have learned how to adapt,” said Rip Daniels, a member of the Harrison County Tourism Commission. “That makes us attractive to developers. Much of our infrastructure is new, and we’re building back stronger. It’s all about business and growing the Coast.”

He mentioned that 798 hotel rooms and 825 condominium units are under construction in addition to the 11,000 rooms now available.

Hancock Bank executive John Hairston pointed out that per capita income is up 17% in the Gulfport-Biloxi area while the national increase is 5%. The population is also expected to grow.

Speaking as a member of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, he said. “The state is a great place to invest. Jobs are back and growing. There are 27,000 casino workers, and we have six casinos under construction. There was $350 million paid in state and local taxes in calendar 2007. We’re at 80% of our pre-Katrina gaming square footage but revenues are up.”

Gov. Haley Barbour addressed the summit’s closing general session. “You’re going to have stability in the gaming industry as long as I’m governor,” he said.

Barbour is opposed to a state lottery or any increase in the casino tax. He indicated he may call up two gaming-related bills during the upcoming special session. One is Senate Bill 2199, the moratorium on casinos that limits them to the counties where they already exist. The bill was narrowly defeated during the regular session.

The other is House Bill 1196, the measure to allow casinos to receive tax incentives to invest in non-gambling tourism developments such as hotels, museums and water parks. The bill passed the House of Representatives by a 79 to 40 vote but died in the Senate.

“If it looks like we can get an agreement, then we will bring up the two bills,” Barbour said.

An array of vendors and exhibitors overflowed the summit’s trade show space into the convention center lobby and brought in a large crowd that included employees of the Coast’s 11 operating casinos. The latest technology displayed everything from hot new slot machines to money counters and sorters and drink dispensers. There were also vendors showing their wares of food, beverages, promotional items and uniforms.

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


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