Gaming panel gives first OK to 5th casino|[2/18/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 18, 2005

JACKSON – A proposal to build another Vicksburg casino along U.S. 61 South sailed through its first vote by the Mississippi Gaming Commission here Thursday.

The plan is by Lyle Berman, chairman of Lakes Entertainment of Minnetonka, Minn., who said he will build what will be one of the largest gambling facilities in the city and could eventually add an adjacent golf course.

In addition, the facility would have four to five restaurants and a 250-room hotel with a parking garage, Berman said.

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“We think we can compete quite a bit with the casinos in Philadelphia,” Berman told the three-member gaming commission, which voted unanimously for several initial approvals including the company’s suitability to proceed with the project.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians operates Pearl River Resort near Philadelphia. It features two casinos, two hotels, several clubs, a water park, PGA-class golf course and a large lake.

The gaming commission, Chairman Jerry St. Pe’ and commissioners Nolen Canon and Howard R. Sanders, voted in favor of the approvals without discussion.

At least two more appearances before the commission will be required before it could grant final approval, called “authority to proceed,” said Berman’s attorney for the project, Danny McDaniel, outside the commission’s meeting.

Investors have committed financing for the project and Lakes plans to request the last two required approvals in about April and May, he added.

Although more than a dozen projects were announced after the Legislature in 1990 approved casino development along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast, four projects opened here in 1993 and 1994. No developments have been added since.

The site where Lakes plans to build is 160 acres along the Mississippi south of Interstate 20 and Vicksburg’s southernmost casino, Rainbow Casino, 1380 Warrenton Road.

The land is zoned agricultural/residential, which permits gaming, Vicksburg urban planning consultant Jimmy Gouras told the commission. The land is touched by the Mississippi River for about 30 percent of each year, he added.

Lakes has also developed casino projects in Biloxi, Gulfport and Tunica and Berman said the facilities it builds are usually the largest in their markets.

Berman began his first casino project, in collaboration with a Native American tribe in 1990.

“Our core business is Indian gaming contracts,” Berman said, adding that such contracts last only seven years. Among Mississippi’s advantages include stable and fair tax rates on gaming, Berman said.

Berman said his company was “the first to finance big facilities with high-yield debt from Wall Street” and that his company saw opportunity in Indian contracts, where “most of the Las Vegas companies are not interested.”

He said a longtime friend of his, developer Jim Belisle, offered him the option on the property off U.S. 61 South. In January 2003 Lakes announced it had acquired options on 500 acres, including the currently proposed site.

A local referendum in 1992 made gambling legal here and the Isle of Capri, Harrah’s, Ameristar and Rainbow opened during the next 18 months. Since then, many operators have said they do not believe the local market can support a fifth casino.

Belisle previously proposed casinos in northern Warren County and along the Big Black River on the county’s eastern edge but neither has been built. Belisle attended Thursday’s meeting and afterward said it was Berman’s “financial clout” that led him to offer the project to Berman.

Berman said his company surveyed residents by telephone in the Vicksburg and Jackson areas to research whether the project could make money.

“A large part of the growth from the Jackson market is now going to Philadelphia,” Berman said. He added that he thought the Vicksburg facility he plans to build could capture some of that growth and take “our fair share” of the Vicksburg market by competing with the city’s existing casinos.

Separately, plans for another casino have been announced by the developer of Rainbow Casino. The company has said it plans to add a casino called Pot of Gold adjacent to its current property. Details of that plan have not been announced and it was not on the commission’s Thursday agenda.

Representatives of Rainbow are expected to appear before the gaming commission at its next meeting, which is scheduled for March 17, said the commission’s executive director, Larry Gregory.

Both casino proposals were approved earlier this month by the Vicksburg Zoning Board.