Lakes nears deadline to seek exception |[02/08/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 8, 2007

The proposal of Lakes Entertainment of Minnesota to build a casino-centered resort off U.S. 61 South will soon be dead in the water unless the company seeks more time from gaming regulators.

A Feb. 16 deadline is approaching for the company to provide a financing package to the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

&#8220We’re still looking at an extension,” said Allen Godfrey, the commission’s deputy director. &#8220If it’s requested.”

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The third and final step for a development to be approved for a license to operate a casino in Mississippi, financing is often the most challenging hurdle to clear, regulators have said.

Executive Director Larry K. Gregory has said developers wanting a time extension have to explain their reasons.

Talks with attorneys involved with the project have continued, Godfrey said, with the focus being making changes to the site. Commission officials have termed those adjustments as being minor, but visits to commission offices in Jackson by Lakes officials stepped up since Ameristar Casino began work to raise its vessel 2 feet to rest on a foundation instead of floating on the water.

Work on that project is expected to wrap up in August, delayed from an earlier March completion date, because of &#8220troubleshooting,” Ameristar public relations manager Tracy Hayes said.

Calls to Lakes Entertainment offices in Minneapolis were not returned.

The development has been pitched as a $200 million project, with a hotel and restaurant to be built beyond where Meadow Lane currently ends off U.S. 61 South.

If completed, it would be a few miles south of two other proposed casinos, now at varying stages in the regulatory process.

One, the $42 million Riverwalk Casino, is said by regulators to be nearing completion of its financial package for presentation.

Riverwalk’s financial presentation is needed by July 14, but its investment group involved recently added Chicago real estate tycoon Neil Bluhm to its investors, adding to the possibility they may be ready soon.

The development, originally proposed as the Magnolia Hills Resort and Pot of Gold Casino, was approved two years ago for its site, now wedged between Rainbow Casino and the proposed Mississippi Bluffs complex.

Like Ameristar, Mississippi Bluffs was approved for a site change by commissioners Jan. 18 to allow for the building that will house its casino operation to be built on pilings. A change in state law in 2005 says casinos no longer have to actually be able to float.

Led by Denver-based Paul Bunge and his firm, Silver Tip Project Partners LLC, the development would sit on 40 acres formerly owned by Vicksburg Chemical and will feature a golf course designed by golf legend Hale Irwin and room for outlet shopping.

If all three projects come to fruition, Vicksburg will be home to seven casinos. Two of the four currently in operation have changed ownership, Harrah’s to Horizon in 2003 and Isle of Capri, Vicksburg’s first casino, to DiamondJacks in July 2006.

A third, Rainbow, was put up for sale in October by its parent company, Bally Technologies.

The first casino opened in Vicksburg in August 1993 and while about a dozen projects have been announced, the original four were the only projects completed. Revenue from the casinos now funds about a third of the city’s budget.

Under the 1990 enabling legislation, casinos may only be in counties bordering the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico. Twice in 2005, once before and once after Hurricane Katrina destroyed casinos on the coast, the statute was amended. Casinos no longer have to float, but must be built on or adjacent to water.