Company tells casino plans for chemical company site|[6/15/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 15, 2006

The number of companies seeking a license to operate a casino in Vicksburg will grow by one today as the development group involved in cleaning up the former Vicksburg Chemical site appears before the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

Mississippi Bluffs Development LLC, headed in part by Denver-based developer Paul Bunge of Silver Tip of Mississippi LLC, has announced its intention to apply for a gaming license.

In the application, the company estimates having 1,500 slot machines and 35 table games in a 50,000-square-foot casino on one of four parcels of land formerly occupied by the now-defunct chemical company.

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The parcel on the west side of Warrenton Road, like three of the four existing casinos in Vicksburg, borders the Mississippi River.

In public meetings and press releases, the developer and city officials have touted building a championship golf course, residential retail space on the 480-acre tract along Rifle Range Road between Interstate 20 and an east-west portion of U.S. 61. No public acknowledgment of casino plans has been made by either side.

Bunge did not return calls for comment Wednesday, but the casino intent is documented in legal advertisements and by the commission’s agenda. The licensing process has many steps, beginning with approval of a site as meeting criteria defined in the state’s 1990 authorization statute. That law says any state-licensed casino must be along the Mississippi Gulf Coast or Mississippi River or tributary.

In December, MDEQ signed an agreement for Silver Tip to spend $8 million to clean up the land abandoned to state ownership when the Memphis-based chemical firm declared bankruptcy.

The tract includes land on both sides of Warrenton Road south of the river bridges. Most of it is hilly land wooded with only a portion on Rifle Range Road used as a plant site starting in the 1950s. The land includes sites where toxic waste was buried when that was legal and other contaminated portions.

In March, Warren County supervisors voted to forgive $218,490 in unpaid property taxes from 2004.

The project joins two other proposed casinos that are further along in the licensing process. One, Lakes Gaming Mississippi LLC, obtained initial site approval in February 2005 and had its development plan approved in July 2005.

Lakes Entertainment of Minnesota plans for that casino to be built on pilings along the Mississippi River near Meadow Lane. The resort would be built between the river and U.S. 61 South.

Initially, the project was expected to cost about $200 million.

The other, Magnolia Hill LLC, is expected to be before the commission next month to change its trade name to Riverwalk Casino from its original name, Pot of Gold Casino and Magnolia Hills Resort, commission chairman Larry Gregory said.

Reached late Wednesday, John L. Maxey, a Jackson attorney representing the Magnolia Hill group, said the potential of another new casino will not affect its approval process.

&#8220I don’t think it will affect us,” Maxey said, adding that news of the Mississippi Bluffs application came as a surprise.

The Riverwalk Casino is to be built on an area of land above the river and north of Rainbow Casino near the Warrenton neighborhood.

Officials with Lakes Entertainment in Minnesota did not return calls. Site approval on Lakes expires Feb. 16, 2007. It expires for Riverwalk July 14, 2007. Site approval is granted for two years and a third approval is necessary from the Mississippi Gaming Commission for the development to proceed.

Following some gains in employees and revenues after Hurricane Katrina temporarily put casinos on the Gulf Coast out of business, tax revenues to local government has showed that profits have dropped a bit. That fits a pattern predicted by leading industry analysts as early as February.

However, one local casino general manager welcomes any competition and said the economic impact should be felt by all casinos.

&#8220We always welcome the competition. We’d love to have them,” said Curt Follmer, general manager of Rainbow Casino.

Any suggestions of a diluted casino market resulting from what would become seven casinos in a city of about 26,000 people were downplayed by Maxey.

Follmer was skeptical about the viability of having so many casinos in Vicksburg, despite his openness to more competition.

&#8220I don’t see the investment banking industry providing the money for three (new) projects here,” he said.