Southern casinos feeling economic pinch

Published 7:11 pm Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A sluggish economy and record gasoline prices are keeping travelers closer to home and off the gambling floor at Southern casinos, an industry analyst said Tuesday.

Mississippi’s state-licensed casinos saw a 19.4 percent drop in winnings from March to April, while Louisiana’s state-licensed casinos recorded a 7.2 percent drop, according to state regulatory agencies.

Both months traditionally are big ones for casinos, as income tax refund checks are issued.

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Mississippi and Louisiana seem to be following a national pattern, said Andy Holtmann, editor of the Las Vegas-based Casino Journal, a trade journal.

“The economy, gas prices, job losses are why you are seeing diminished results,” Holtmann said.

Casinos in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, which depend heavily on drive-in gamblers, are probably the most vulnerable, though the same sag in revenue is beginning to hit fly-in markets such as Las Vegas, Holtmann said.

“It’s not crippling” Holtmann said. “Most of the pundits and analysts think there will be no long-term damage. But for now, it’s getting tighter.”

Louisiana’s 13 riverboat casinos, Harrah’s New Orleans land casino and the four slot machine casinos at horse racing tracks took in $213.1 million last month, down from $229.6 million in March, but still up a bit from $205 million in April 2007. However, there were two fewer gambling outlets open a year ago.

In Mississippi, the tally from players who ventured into that state’s 29 casinos fell from $260.6 million in March to $210.1 million in April.

Holtmann said Mississippi casinos probably are being hit by four Seminole tribal casinos that opened in Florida. “That’s taking a small chunk from Biloxi, but it can be replaced,” Holtmann said.

Mississippi coastal casinos saw a drop in winnings from $120.8 million in March to $97.1 million in April.

Louisiana markets that are heavily dependent upon Texas gamblers — Shreveport-Bossier City and Lake Charles — saw March-to-April dips in winnings. Shreveport-Bossier City casinos won $69.1 million in April, down from $73.3 million in March, while the Lake Charles market won $53.4 million last month, a drop from $58.6 million in March.

New Orleans, a mix of the Harrah’s casino in the tourist district and two riverboats that cater to local gamblers, won $59.4 million in April, dipping from $64.8 million in March. The two riverboats in Baton Rouge, considered to be a local market, saw their combined winnings go from $19.2 million to $18.3 million.

The two states’ figures do not include Indian reservation casinos, which are not required to report their winnings to the public.