Riverwalk should be first step in expansion

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 2, 2008

A tanking national economy couldn’t have been encouraging to investors who worked for at least three years to bring to fruition last week a $100 million casino-hotel-restaurant development in Vicksburg.

Imagine their chagrin earlier this year as fuel prices rose to $4 per gallon and the discretionary income of families was increasingly absorbed by higher costs for food and utilities.

They must have wondered whether their decision was prudent, to say the least.

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Yet lines formed even at the hint of a new venue opening — and strong crowds followed Tuesday’s initial unlocking of doors to the Riverwalk gaming floor.

Certainly the initial stampede won’t be sustained, but what about the months and years to come?

A comment by Larry Gregory, director of the agency that controls state-licensed casinos, seems especially appropriate.

“This casino is going to be crucial in regard to where the Vicksburg market goes from here,” he said. “Right now you’re not going to see any new developments because the economy is so tight, but any potential developers in the future are going to look at Riverwalk to see if they were able to grow the Vicksburg market.”

“Grow the market” might be obtuse from a grammar standpoint, but from a business standpoint it’s what really matters. There have been two schools of thought on this topic. One, heard repeatedly during a pitch for a car track and additional casino development in east Warren County more than 10 years ago, is that Vicksburg is a “fixed” market for entertainment-seekers. That thinking is that there is a defined market area, that there will be so many dollars spent at local casinos, hotels and restaurants and the only issue is how many of the fixed number of dollars will be spent at each.

That is a view we rejected 10 years ago and do again today.

The market area can be expanded, and it must be. Riverwalk, the first new casino development in 14 years, should be the first step.

For Vicksburg to become a destination resort, more investment must be invited and encouraged. We must not have a repeat of provincial attitudes that have prevailed in the past.

America is in a recession, yet each community in America has more control over its own destiny than the locals sometimes believe. In Northeast Mississippi, for example, new suppliers for the Toyota plant are being announced almost every week. No recession there.

Here, tourism has always been a strong asset. The Vicksburg National Military Park is continuing improvements, as are many privately managed attractions. The strongest local building boom has been in hotels.

The rooms can be filled by wise local government coordination and participation in recreation complexes, a new golf course and continued development of the attractions at City Front.

The alternative — not to “grow the market” — is to invite stagnation, to be satisfied with a shrinking pie cut into smaller slices. If development leaders let that happen, they’ll have only themselves to blame. Gregory is correct. The community must reach out to a larger audience of destination travelers. It can be done. It must be done.