Ameristar building height wins OK|[7/01/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 1, 2005

Hotel next to Mississippi would be tallest in city

Ameristar Casino will be allowed to build a 14-story, 200-foot hotel along the banks of the Mississippi River, city officials said this morning.

The Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to waive the 65-foot height limit on construction at the river to allow Ameristar to build a new hotel and parking garage at the casino at 4116 Washington St.

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Mayor Laurence Leyens said the ordinance applies only to casino properties, so if the hotel were not gaming-related, it would not be affected by the rule.

“There were a number of ordinances written at that time (in 1993) that just don’t make sense,” Leyens said. “If this hotel wasn’t for a casino they could build any height they want.”

Ray Neilsen, general manager of the Vicksburg Ameristar property, said the hotel and garage will help enhance the casino property and enhance the city’s reputation as a tourist destination.

“We appreciate that the Board of Mayor and Aldermen have decided in favor of an expansion that will help Vicksburg and Ameristar build an even more successful future together,” Neilsen said.

During a two-hour public hearing Thursday, city officials heard opinions of Ameristar executives, representatives of the Vicksburg National Military Park and about 50 area residents. The comments on the proposed $150 million development came after the zoning board could not reach a decision on the casino’s request for a special exception to the city ordinance.

That ordinance enacted by the city shortly after gaming became legal here in 1993 limits building heights along the river to protect the view. Since, the rule was waived once before for the proposed Gold River Casino at Oak and Lee streets, but it was never built.

Ameristar is between two historic river overlooks maintained by the military park and represent placement of Confederate cannons during the 47-day siege of 1963. Although most people at Thursday’s hearing favored the casino development, many said the city should protect the view.

“It’s a shame to think that the public would have to pay for a room to enjoy the view we can see for free walking down Washington Street today,” said Steve Golding, president of Golding Barge Company.

Park Superintendent Monika Mayr, who was accompanied by park historian Terry Winschel and former Superintendent Bill Nichols, also said the river view will be blocked from the overlooks. She said if the casino is built there at that height, a cannon at South Fort would be pointing directly into the hotel.

“Undoubtedly Ameristar has benefited this community, and I applaud them for that; however, the height requirements were in place when they bought the property,” Mayr said.

Not everyone concerned with history agreed with Mayr.

Gordon Cotton, historian and curator of the Old Court House Museum, said even if part of the river view is blocked by a hotel, it wouldn’t stop people from learning about the siege when visiting that site.

He also pointed to two cannons in front of the Old Court House that point at the new Warren County Courthouse.

“Vicksburg has had 175 years to develop our water front, and it’s finally being done, thanks to you guys and Ameristar,” Cotton said.

Larry Gawronski, director of the Vicksburg Convention Center, said the 400-room hotel proposed by Ameristar will help attract more conventions. Local real estate agent Pam Beard also said the hotel wouldn’t block any more of the view than the former Delta Point restaurant, which was on Washington Street.

“It’s a venue where we can bring more people to see the Mississippi River rather than catching a glimpse of it while driving by,” Beard said.

The proposal calls for the hotel to be built between the existing casino and Washington Street on the river side of a 100-foot bluff. If the plans are approved by the city’s building inspection department, the hotel will be the tallest structure in Vicksburg.

Today, the tallest building is the 11-story Vicksburg Hotel on Clay Street. The downtown First National Bank building has eight floors, the Horizon hotel has seven and the existing Ameristar hotel has eight.

Ameristar was the third casino in Vicksburg, opening in 1994. Since, investments and improvements at the property have been consistent, including a $5.3 million project last year to stabilize the river bank 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 boat’s gaming space this year, adding room for 200 slot machines and a poker room.

Casino officials did not say when they expect construction to begin; the first phase is expected to be 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.

The city’s decision to grant the variance can be appealed through Circuit Court, but no group has indicated that an appeal is planned.

Announcements were also made last year for two new casinos for 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 appear before the commission soon. Construction has not begun, but the Lakes site is south of Entergy’s Baxter-Wilson plant, about halfway between the Rainbow complex and Vicksburg Municipal Airport.