grand station

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Dennis Green of Rainbow Signs moves an a’ from the Harrah’s sign Monday after the casino closed.(Jenny Sevcik The Vicksburg Post)

[10/28/03]Harrah’s shut its doors Sunday night as the new owners moved in and began preparing to open as Horizon Casino-Hotel, but some former employees are saying today they were misled to believe they would be keeping their jobs.

Michael Manuel worked for Harrah’s for two years developing custom software, fixing computers and networking. On Monday night as the sale of the downtown property became official and the payroll switched from Harrah’s to Columbia Sussex, Manuel said he and several other higher-paid employees were laid off at the end of their shifts.

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“This was totally unexpected. I really thought we were going to get to keep our jobs,” Manuel said.

William Bobb, a seven-year employee at the 10-year-old casino hotel, said he had a “gut feeling” about losing his job, but that he and others had been told there would be no layoffs. Manuel said that Harrah’s executives had told them that there is a no-layoff clause in the deal to sell to Kentucky-based Columbia Sussex.

Manuel said he was told that agreement allows the company to lay off up to 50 people. No one would speak for the new company, but Bobb said those laid off Monday night included the casino manager, assistant manager, head of security and other top positions, including some who had worked for Harrah’s since the company opened in Vicksburg.

Bobb had started at Harrah’s in the surveillance department, but moved to the information technologies department and was promoted to IT manager six months ago.

“They weren’t going by quality. I think they are just making a business decision,” Bobb said.

The sale to the company that operates two casinos in Greenville was announced in July. Harrah’s employed about 400 people at the downtown casino.

After the casino and restaurants were closed Sunday night, a man standing at the Mulberry Street entrance Monday said that only the hotel was open. Another man who did not give his name identified himself as a spokesman for the new owners, but said they had no comment.

The casino is expected to reopen later this week.

Leigh Ann Wilkins, director of public affairs at the Gaming Commission, said commission officials were present to oversee the switch.

“Anytime there’s a changeover and there’s money involved, we have to be there to supervise,” Wilkins said.

Harrah’s opened in November 1993 and was the state’s first hotel-casino combo under casino-enabling laws passed in 1990.

Vicksburg is home to three other casinos, all of which opened in 1993 and 1994. There has been talk for years of a fifth boat, but most in the industry say there is not a large enough market locally to support another casino.

Columbia Sussex is privately held by the Yung family, and operates 57 hotels, resorts and casinos in 26 states including the Lighthouse Point and Bayou Caddy’s Jubilee casinos in Greenville. It will do business in Vicksburg as Columbia Properties Vicksburg LLC.