Developers of two proposed casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast missed the deadlines required by state gaming commission to secure financing. Developers of the 0 million Scarlet Pearl Casino in D’Iberville missed a March 31 deadline, and Rotate Black missed an April 1 deadline for its 2 million Hemingway Resort and Casino in Gulfport. Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said, “At this time, no extensions are being entertained.” While site approval still stands, both projects must start at the beginning of the entire review process and meet the gaming commission’s new, more stringent casino development requirements.
After working for more than 20 years to land a casino, D’Iberville City Manager Bobby Eleuterius said, “I’m very, very disappointed. The project brings a lot to the city.”
Eleuterius said the city stands ready to assist the developer in any way. The Scarlet Pearl proposal still may qualify under the state’s new rules, since it offers the required 300-minimum hotel rooms plus an elaborate 36-hole miniature golf course, event center and other amenities.
Godfrey said the gaming commission held several special meetings for the two casinos prior to the December 31 expiration of the previous, less stringent regulations. When commissioners met December 4 they gave Scarlet Pearl permission to proceed and set a deadline to secure financing. Gaming Commission Chairman John Hairston said he voted for the D’Iberville project because it had amenities and financial backing. The commission met again in February and extended the deadline for Scarlet Pearl to March 31.
The gaming commission granted Rotate Black approval to proceed, with an April 1 deadline for financing, at a special meeting on December 30 in Gulfport. “This was their fifth time before us. They assured us they would have everything in order,” Godfrey said. He added another condition of the approval was that Rotate Black would pay off millions of dollars in debts owed to architects, engineers, contractors and landowners. Rotate Black also owed the city $200,000 for its option on public property in the harbor.
At that meeting, Rotate Black presented plans to build the Ernest Hemingway-themed casino and hotel at the west end of the Gulfport small craft harbor, featuring a Spanish Mission exterior with a 205-room luxury hotel and a 35,000 square foot gaming floor—95 rooms and 5,000 square feet short of the new regulations.
Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes said he’s hopeful a new developer will be able to build a casino resort on the approved site, which included three city-owned acres plus two lots that comprised 10 acres held by multiple parties.
He said the city will start marketing the property soon. “It’s too good a site, it really is, to go undeveloped. That harbor is spectacular. With Jones Park, the whole area is a draw in itself,” Hewes said.
City Council President Ricky Dombrowski, who waited with Hewes all day on April 1 for a phone call that never came from Rotate Black, said, “If the economy was good, this probably would have happened a long time ago. As far as the city goes, I think all of our votes have been 7-0. It’s not like anybody opposes a gaming site there. We want the revenue. We want the taxes and the jobs. We want it to happen.”
Godfrey said lining up financing to build casinos apparently still is a challenge, “based on the fact that these projects have not come to fruition.”
Diamondhead Casino Corporation, which wants to develop a casino on land it owns in Diamondhead, Mississippi on the Bay of St. Louis, would agree with that. The company recently named Ted Arneault, former chairman of MTR Gaming Group, as president and chief executive officer.
Up the Mississippi River, when Caesars Entertainment’s Harrah’s Tunica Casino closes on June 2, about 1,300 people will lose their jobs—which will be particularly devastating since Tunica County already has the second-highest unemployment rate of all Mississippi counties.
Webster Franklin, director of the Tunica County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “No one envisioned, I think, that they would actually close the doors of what is arguably the premier resort in Tunica.”
Franklin said about $14 billion in wages will be lost when Harrah’s closes. “Because the gaming industry has been somewhat taboo over the years, our elected officials across the state have not looked at it in the same light as another industry. I hope that this is the wake-up call that‘s needed,” he said.
But some legislators, including House Democratic Caucus Leader and former House Gaming Committee Chairman, state Rep. Bobby Moak, said the state is “lacking a vision” to assist the gambling industry. “Leadership in our state has refused to afford this vital industry the tax incentives and credits it offers to existing businesses or even those used to lure in new industries,” he said. State Rep. Richard Bennett, chair of the House Gaming Committee, added, “We don’t provide them any tax breaks, even on the tourism aspect, golf courses, hotels, nothing.” All the state provides to casinos are limited funds to help with infrastructure.
Gold Strike General Manager Nik Rytterstrom said his company has not experienced the financial difficulties similar to Harrah’s.
“We‘ve actually done very well over the last couple of years,” he said. “We continue to hire employees, and we‘ve actually been expanding our gaming floor.”
Rytterstrom added Gold Strike could be interested in hiring some of Harrah’s employees who will lose their jobs.
“We‘re always looking for talented individuals, especially from this area,” Rytterstrom said.
Caesars’ officials said the company has been looking for a buyer for the Tunica property.
Facing billions of dollars of debt, Caesar’s Entertainment recently sold three casinos in Las Vegas and one in New Orleans to a subsidiary company.