Gaming forecast sunny, says casino firm|[09/15/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 15, 2007

Officials with a Nevada company interested in running the casino side of the gaming-and-golf complex off Warrenton Road still see promise in the Vicksburg market, deemed flat by industry-watchers sticking by their post-Katrina analysis of the local market.

“We feel with Ameristar’s additions coming in, we’ll see substantial growth with more overall amenities,” said Eddie Lynn, casino operations executive with American Gaming Enterprises, in talks to buy out the gaming portion of the $190 million Mississippi Bluffs casino project from Denver developer Paul Bunge.

The project still faces the usual regulatory steps to be licensed and begin construction, including presenting a full financing plan to the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Ameristar Casino, Vicksburg’s market share leader, was dry-docked in June and work is still on schedule to add two new restaurants and a spacious, 1,000-space parking garage by March 2008. Within a year later, the $150 million Riverwalk is expected to open and feature landscaped walkways where guests can view the Mississippi River.

Even as gross casino revenues from those along the Mississippi River are on pace to surpass the average seen in years leading up to the devastating storm, Vicksburg’s more-or-less static population and industrial growth trends plays into casino market forecasts that are partly cloudy, at best.

“So far, Vicksburg is not showing a lot of growth,” said Lawrence Klatzkin, an analyst for New York-based investment bank Jefferies & Company Inc. “There was a big boost when Katrina happened, but it’s on a trend to go down.”

Casinos along the river have reported $966 million in gross earnings to the Mississippi State Tax Commission, more than halfway to the customary $1.5 billion river casinos had averaged for years before Katrina shut down coastal gaming completely for three months. Gross revenues at river casinos surpassed usual performance up to $20 million in some of the following six months.

Revenue-based taxes paid to Vicksburg and Warren County jumped considerably along with it, then gradually settled back into pre-hurricane trends. Combined, $8.5 million has been paid to city and county governments in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, about $1.4 million behind the pace of last year’s hurricane-affected totals.

Those figures do not seem to have fazed the potential new owners of Mississippi Bluffs, intent on making a sizeable splash in the Vicksburg market.

An affiliate of American Gaming Group LLC, the Nevada-based operation will operate locally as AGE Vicksburg LLC and own a third of the project’s overall development group, Mississippi Gaming Enterprises.

Its Web site cites a “thorough market analysis” by industry consulting firm The Innovation Group as evidence of Vicksburg’s potential.

Pre-tax and interest earnings are projected in the 30 percent range, rating favorably with the 40 percent margin experienced by Ameristar, according to the site.

Its plans for the site remain largely unchanged from drawings approved in June 2006 and amended in January 2007 when Bunge’s Silver Tip Project Partners appeared before state regulators.

Situated on 40 acres, between Warrenton Road and the river, formerly occupied by Vicksburg Chemical, plans call for a casino between 40,000 and 50,000 square feet with 1,200 slot machines and 35 table games. It will also feature a full-service, themed restaurant and steak house. A 232-room hotel and 510-space parking garage were part of Bunge’s vision, along with a professionally designed 18-hole golf course.

How the golf course and retail development will fit into the overall project remains “up in the air,” Bunge has said. But, he is “pretty comfortable” with the experience its casino operators will bring.

AGE was founded in 2004 by commercial construction magnate Paul “Sonny” Marshall, also a onetime city councilman in Glendora, Calif. Its primary goal was developing a premier casino facility in Cripple Creek, Colo., about an hour from Colorado Springs. It is under construction and set to open in 2008. It also owns and operates Gold King Mountain Inn in Cripple Creek.

The company plans to develop or acquire seven casinos by 2012, according to its Web site. Also under evaluation is a casino development in Natchez, still needing full approval from state regulators, and an upscale hotel and resort in Costa Rica.

AGE is aiming to close on the Vicksburg property by December. Bunge was originally deeded the property by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality in July 2006 on the condition the casino developers would pay for an $8 million cleanup of about 20 acres separate from the casino development said to be contaminated.

In the other proposed casino project, Lakes Entertainment has until February 2009 to show finances to the state. Its deal is contingent on developing about 150 acres along its U.S. 61 South site purchased temporarily from the City of Vicksburg.