Analysis: Lawmakers may help flooded river casinos

By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press

JACKSON — After Hurricane Katrina’s surge raked a path of destruction along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, lawmakers moved swiftly to enact hurricane-relief measures for the region’s gambling boats.

The main proposal approved during that special session allowed the casinos to move off their barges and build a short distance from shore.

Lawmakers also were considering at the time giving the Mississippi River casinos the same option, but the industry declined. Now, those casinos along the river are in the midst of another natural disaster caused by the flooding Mississippi.

All but two of Mississippi’s 19 river casinos were closed due to the intruding water. The river has already crested at Tunica, Greenville, Vicksburg and elsewhere. In some places, the water is starting to recede.

It’s unclear how much the forced closures might impact gaming revenue, but any decline in state revenue collections is unwelcome as Mississippi continues to pull itself out of an economic downturn.

But House Gaming Committee Chairman Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said he’d like lawmakers to wait to hear from the industry before broaching any proposals.

“I think the Legislature would be wise to listen to industry needs because there are a lot of things that must be considered — location, marketing, geography. A lot of things we don’t think about,” Moak said.

Besides, there’s already an option available to the river casinos, said Eddie Williams, deputy director of the state Gaming Commission. Williams said a law passed during the 2005 regular session allowed river casinos to build on pilings so they wouldn’t have to be in the water. Williams said Harlow’s in Greenville and Riverwalk Casino in Vicksburg have taken advantage of the law.

“The law allows them to go up above the floodwaters,” Williams said. “The reason nobody took advantage of it is that nobody saw a 500-year flood coming.”

Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Marks, have more casinos in their district than anyone else in the Legislature.

Mayo has been blogging about the flood, as well as going on nearly daily tours of areas affected. Mayo said adding the river casinos to the 2005 legislation wouldn’t have been an easy move to make, and there were numerous factors to consider.

“At the time, I was asked to amend the bill by a couple of people in different counties and I did not. I felt like we would have a hard enough time getting the coast moved. I did call a couple of general managers and they were not in favor,” Mayo said.

“A Mississippi law required them to put a sizable investment in nongaming property to open a casino. Some of these casinos sunk a lot of money in the development. For example, Gold Strike has the tallest building in Mississippi. To allow casinos to locate on the dry side of the levee wouldn’t be fair to those casinos that made sizable investments on the river side.”

The economic impact of the casinos’ closure in Tunica can be measured in days, said Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“For the last three weeks, we’ve had 9,600 employees who haven’t been coming to work. We’ve had 20,000 to 25,000 tourists a day who haven’t been coming here. Four-thousand-600 hotel rooms closed.”

Franklin said Tunica County already had one of the highest unemployment rates in Mississippi before the flood because the market had been hard-hit by competition and the recession.

“We were hoping this spring travel season was to be the rebound of the economy. We got hit hard at one of the times we needed to recover the most,” Franklin said.