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Belisle gets developer for casino, golfing

A developer who has tried to start two projects in Vicksburg has a backer for his third in Lakes Entertainment, a Minnesota company with casino management experience.

Lakes, a publicly traded company based in Minnetonka, says in a news release it has obtained an option to buy about 500 acres located south of the city between U.S. 61 South and the Mississippi River.

“I believe the Vicksburg area is one of the few remaining locations available in Mississippi with the potential to grow as a gaming destination,” Lyle Berman, president and CEO, says in the company’s statement. “A first-class gaming/golfing resort facility would be a win-win development for residents and business in the area.”

The release follows statements by Jim Belisle last week that he was promoting a golf course-centered riverside development. He said Thursday he would be a minor partner in the Lakes project.

No timetable for the project or dollar amount of investment was revealed. Lakes is traded by NASDAQ under the symbol LACO.

Belisle, also from Minnesota, first purchased land on the Yazoo River near Redwood in 1992, but a financial backer for that project did not appear. Four years later, Horseshoe Gaming, which operates casinos in Las Vegas, Shreveport and Tunica, pledged $125 million to Belisle’s second proposal a NASCAR-type track with adjacent casino and hotel facilities on the Big Black near Bovina. State regulators denied site approval, however, and litigation followed, ending last fall.

When Belisle made his announcement of the project south of town he said he saw the completed project competing with the casinos and the Dancing Rabbit Golf Club near Philadelphia which are owned by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw.

Belisle said he put together the option on the south Vicksburg land and presented the deal to Berman.

“He said this is great,'” Belisle said, adding Berman wanted to get back into the Mississippi gambling market because the state treated him well when he was an owner of the Grand casinos in Tunica, Biloxi and Gulfport, which he sold to Park Place Entertainment. With that deal, Berman had a five-year agreement not to compete with the new owners in Mississippi, but that expired the first of January. Lakes was the manager of a Grand casino in Louisiana until its contract expired in 2002.

Berman is eager to do business in Mississippi once again, Belisle said.

In announcing the deal, Lakes’ news release said the site lends itself to become the premier destination for a casino/golf course resort in the area.

He also said he expected tourism to increase with the development, which he expects to create about 1,500 new jobs and the land is ideal.

“It is actually over 600 acres with 500 acres of flat ground,” he said.

Berman “really is the guy that took gaming in Mississippi from riverboats to the Las Vegas style we have today,” Belisle said.

“The market in Vicksburg is an untapped market,” he said, adding the era of riverboat gaming in Mississippi is over and the future is in more Las Vegas style.

Belisle said he and Berman believe the Vicksburg market can be increased from a $220 million to $230 million market to one of $275 million to $300 million.

If the project goes through, it will be the first casino development in Vicksburg since Rainbow Hotel and Casino opened in June 1994.

Vicksburg officials, especially South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, have been talking about getting an additional golf course in Vicksburg and had indicated the area in south Vicksburg could be ideal for it. There are already the Vicksburg Country Club and Clear Creek Golf Course at Bovina in the community.

Mississippi lawmakers opened the door to casino development in river and coast counties in 1990 and Warren County voters, after an initial refusal, voted yes to the idea in December 1991. The Isle of Capri will be 10 years old in August; Harrah’s, Mississippi’s first casino-hotel combination, will be 10 in November; and Ameristar reaches the decade mark in February 2004.

Statewide, other than The Golden Moon added to The Silver Star by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians near Philadelphia in 2002, no new state-regulated casinos have opened since Beau Rivage in Biloxi in 1998.