Gaming Commission: Numbers show healthy recovery from Katrina

Published 5:06 pm Friday, September 22, 2006

Mississippi’s coastal casino industry is rebounding strongly from Hurricane Katrina, state Gaming Commission director Larry Gregory told lawmakers Thursday.

He said a few more months of healthy gambling revenues should convince other big-name companies to move forward with their development plans in the area.

“Mississippi, after having the worst disaster the state has ever had, is still the third largest gaming jurisdiction in the country,” Gregory told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

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Mississippi’s casino industry ranks behind Nevada’s and New Jersey’s.

Before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, there were 12 casinos operating and one scheduled to open along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Now, less than 13 months after the storm, nine casinos are operating and one more is scheduled to open in October or November.

Before the storm, about 17,000 people worked in the coastal casinos. Now, there are about 14,000.

Before the storm, the coast casinos collected about $1.2 billion in annual revenues and generated about $144 million in taxes.

Gregory said he expects the coast casinos to hit $1 billion in revenues this year and to generate about $120 million in taxes.

Mississippi legalized casinos in 1992 but restricted them to the waters of the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. The examples Gregory gave Thursday covered only the coast gambling houses. The river casinos were not damaged by Katrina.

The hurricane left a broad swath of destruction along the coast, tossing some of the massive casino barges on shore and across a highway that runs along the beach.

During a special session a few weeks after Katrina, lawmakers voted to let coast casinos build 800 feet on shore, a change the industry wanted to help protect their investments in future storms.

Jerry St. Pe, a former coast shipyard director who now serves on the state Gaming Commission, told lawmakers Thursday that the coast casino industry is coming back “in a far more stable way as a result of the decision by the Mississippi Legislature to allow gaming to come on shore.”

The Gaming Commission has approved applications for several casinos along the Gulf Coast, including a $1 billion Harrah’s development in Biloxi and a $500 million Bacaran Bay project along the Back Bay of Biloxi. Gregory said the companies are studying the revenue trends for casinos that have reopened to see what the market can handle.

Rep. Diane Peranich, D-DeLisle, said she’s eager to see work start on the $300 million Isle of Capri Pine Hills casino that’s planned for her area. She said taxes generated by the project will “single-handedly … save the Pass Christian school system.”

Gregory, St. Pe and Gaming Commission member Nolen Canon of Tunica appeared before the Legislative Budget Committee to present the commission’s spending request for the year that starts next July 1.

The Gaming Commission’s current budget is just under $10 million, and Gregory said the group wants $10.3 million for next year. Gregory said the slight increase is needed to cover travel expenses. As companies seek state licensing, the Gaming Commission sends employees to investigate investors’ backgrounds. Gregory said the companies reimburse the state, but the commission needs enough money to cover the expenses until the reimbursement arrives.

State budget hearings continue Monday.

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