After watching his personal and professional dreams get swept away by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago, Joseph Manno is back, looking to build a casino on the Biloxi Back Bay at D’Iberville. And, city leaders in D’Iberville are perhaps more excited about the proposed CanCan Casino Resort and Spa than Manno and his team.
The question is will this new venture survive another “storm” — the economy.
In late February, the Mississippi Gaming Commission announced it had approved the site for the CanCan Casino. The five-acre property is situated on the east side of Interstate 110 in D’Iberville overlooking the Biloxi Back Bay.
Plans call for a 60,000-square-foot gaming venue with 1,800 slot machines and 40 gaming tables, four restaurants, French spa, 250 rooms and suites and retail outlets. It is expected to employ 1,100 workers.
The site approval for the CanCan was an important milestone not only for Manno and CanCan Development, LLC, but also for the City of D’Iberville, which has been trying to land a casino for more than a decade. Now, city officials have the CanCan penciled in as the “anchor” for a downtown revitalization effort called the French Market, a proposed mixed-use development aimed at attracting new jobs as well as more visitors and their wallets.
“We’ve been looking for a catalyst such as this to jumpstart our downtown development,” said D’Iberville Mayor Rusty Quave.
City Manager Michael Janus added, “The City of D’Iberville has been working hard for many years to transform our downtown and waterfront into areas where retail shops, restaurants and unique attractions can flourish. The CanCan project will help us realize these plans.”
Manno, president and CEO of CanCan Development, said he and his group have been working on details of the CanCan for almost a year. He said the city leaders have been “incredibly supportive.” Manno said he and his group understand that they are part of a larger development, and that their plans must meet the city’s vision and efforts.
A good example is the casino’s design. Architect Francis Xavier Dumont, who executed the design of numerous casinos such as the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., and the Casa Del Sol in Tucson, Ariz., said the facility’s curved lines are meant to complement the city’s downtown aesthetics, giving it a softer look with “no hard lines.”
Janus said CanCan Development has been “very open,” and have spent months poring over the city’s master plans to ensure the CanCan fits in D’Iberville’s future.
It certainly did not look like Manno, a 29-year casino veteran whose resume includes heading the operations of Paris Casino and Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas, was in the Coast’s future five years ago. In 2005, he and his group gained approval for the Havana Casino Resort to be built on pilings on Biloxi’s Port Cadet. Everything seemed a go. The first piling was to be driven Aug. 29, 2005 — the day Katrina made landfall. That was a death blow for the Havana project, and it washed away more than Manno’s professional aspirations.
“I had just closed on a home 10 days before Katrina hit,” Manno said. The home was totally destroyed, and he and his family never moved in. “There wasn’t one brick stacked on top of another after the storm. It was shredded. I didn’t have a chance to even flush the toilet once,” he said with a laugh.
Manno said he returned to Biloxi and D’Iberville on two other occasions after Katrina trying to get a new casino going, but could not cut a deal either time.
“I’m thrilled to be back on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he said.
The CanCan team will be back in D’Iberville this week, working out more details of the project. Those talks have accelerated over the last five months — what Manno called a “full court press” — as the city looks to quickly get its French Market project underway. Janus said the mixed-use project, which will encompass approximately 30 acres, will get started “as soon as possible.”
CanCan’s plans call for construction to begin by the end of the year. The facility is expected to take approximately 15 months to complete.
However, there is much work left to be done. The next step for the CanCan is gaining an application to proceed with development from the Mississippi Gaming Commission. This phase in the licensing project is all about financing — how much and from whom.
When interviewed for this story, Manno was in New York, talking with potential investors. He said CanCan had landed five underwriters, and that financing was “very close” to being finalized.
Building a new casino during a troubled economy, which has heavily impacted gaming revenues across the state and nation, seems at best questionable. But, while the Coast market has not been immune from the recession, it is currently trending upward.
Coast gaming revenues last January, the most recent available from the Mississippi Gaming Commission, were approximately $91.29 million. Coast gaming revenues were roughly $85.27 million in Sept. 2009, $86.31 million in Oct. 2009 and $87.21 million in Nov. 2009. The only glitch was last December (approximately $83.54 million), historically an off period for the casino industry as a whole.
Still, industry experts continue to see full recovery a long time coming — if at all. An American Gaming Association (AGA) survey last November polled gaming professionals concerning their outlook. Forty-four percent said they think the industry will reach pre-recessionary levels in approximately three to four years. Twenty-three percent think the industry will completely recover in only one to two years, while 21 percent say five to nine years is most realistic. Five percent of gaming professionals do not think the industry ever will achieve the level of success witnessed before the recession.
“Without a doubt, the gaming industry faces a long road to recovery,” said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president and CEO of the AGA.
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