Zoning board in stalemate on Ameristar request|[4/26/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Presented with a plea from a Civil War soldier’s descendent and the potential of a new $150 million development, the Vicksburg Zoning Board of Appeals could not reach a decision Monday night on the request to build a 14-story hotel and a separate parking facility along the Mississippi River.

The board split 2-2 on the request from Ameristar Casino for a variance to the 65-foot building height limit along the river. General Manager Ray Neilsen said the company will appeal to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

“Ameristar is committed to supporting Vicksburg’s reputation as a tourism destination, and we are dedicated to providing quality amenities to our guests,” Neilsen said. “We are confident the addition of a hotel and parking garage will make a positive contribution to both of these efforts. We hope the City of Vicksburg will allow the project to move forward.”

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletter

Receive daily headlines and obituaries

Vicksburg’s special zoning ordinance was passed 12 years ago to regulate casino development. It set theme, height and other restrictions.

Monday, the citizen panel was hearing Ameristar’s request for a variance to build a 90-foot parking garage just north of its casino and a 200-foot hotel to the west of the boat on the property off Washington Street.

Ameristar presented drawings showing how the structures would appear from Vicksburg National Military Park overlooks in the area. Those bluffs are where Civil War cannons once guarded the city’s entrances.

Jo Johnson of Jackson whose great-great-grandfather died during the 1863 siege of Vicksburg said her concern with allowing the 200-foot hotel would also be that it could affect future development along the river.

“We already know that there are two more casinos planning on coming here, and are we going to give them the same variance? And if so, what about the other casinos that are already here?” Johnson asked.

Park Superintendent Monika Mayr said the board should also consider plans being studied by the park to clear trees on park property in that area to open the views to the river at the overlooks surrounding the Ameristar property.

“I encourage you to set the bar very high when making your decision,” Mayr said.

City Attorney Nancy Thomas said the 2-2 vote was effectively a denial. Jack Burrell and board chairman Tim Fagerburg voted against the request, and Fred Katzenmeyer and Mark Corum voted in favor.

The fifth member of that board, Lonnie Boykin, recused himself from the vote because a family member works for Ameristar.

“Part of what we do as a board is to make sure that an applicant meets the conditions necessary for a variance,” Fagerburg said.

“And, when Ameristar bought the property they already knew the lay of the land,” he added.

The city ordinance allows for a variance if the property owner can show a unique condition exists that would put an undo hardship on the owner if the rules were not set aside.

Speaking for the casino, Rick deFlon, senior vice president of design for Ameristar Casino, said that because the hotel would be built in a 100-foot drop from street level and inland from the casino it would not obstruct the views of the river. He also said it is needed for Ameristar to stay competitive with other casinos.

“With the additional casinos planning to come in to Vicksburg we anticipate the market will grow and we want to be a part of that growth,” deFlon said.

The casino has 10 days to appeal the decision, but Mayor Laurence Leyens, who earlier endorsed the project, would not say how he expects that vote to turn out. He said that the prospect of more development is a good sign for Vicksburg.

“Four years ago, this request would not have even been possible and this just demonstrates the growth of our community,” Leyens said.

Because of the timing involved in the appeal process and the days needed to advertise for a public hearing before the city board and prepare the appeal, it is unlikely that it will be heard by the board before the June 7 general election.

Ameristar was the third casino in Vicksburg, opening in 1994. Since then, investments and improvements at the property have been consistent, including a $5.3 million project last year to stabilize the riverbank and improve parking, a $7 million renovation of its buffet in 2003 and, two years earlier, a $10 million makeover of the entire casino.

Ameristar is also planning to expand the casino’s gaming space this year, adding room for 200 more slot machines and a poker room.

If zoning approval is received, the first phase of construction is the parking garage, with space for about 1,150 vehicles. Hotel construction is expected to follow in multiple phases.

The hotel plans include additional dining and meeting rooms, retail space and a swimming pool.

Announcements were also made last year for two new casinos coming to Vicksburg. The first, proposed by Lakes Entertainment of Minnetonka, Minn., has won approval from the Mississippi Gaming Commission and the second, the Pot of Gold casino, is expected to go before the commission soon. Construction has not begun on the Lakes site, south of Entergy’s Baxter-Wilson plant and about halfway between the Rainbow complex and Vicksburg Municipal Airport.