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Howard Stutz

Gambling in Mississippi: Bill OK'd to Allow Casinos on Land

4 October 2005

Mississippi lawmakers voted Monday to allow coastal casinos destroyed by Hurricane Katrina to be rebuilt on dry land rather than atop barges floating on the Gulf of Mexico.

The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Haley Barbour, who called a special session of the state Legislature last week to address hurricane relief. Barbour had asked lawmakers to let the casinos move ashore by as much as 1,500 feet.

The decision comes more than a month after Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed 12 casinos in the communities of Bay St. Louis, Biloxi and Gulfport, eliminating the jobs of thousands of casino workers and financially straining Mississippi's gaming industry.

State officials said the state is losing more than $500,000 a day in tax revenue while the casinos are closed.

Casino operators, including Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment, had sought changes in Mississippi law to allow the coastal casinos to become land-based.

Under the bill, casinos can be rebuilt within 800 feet of the water's edge.

Harrah's, the gaming industry's largest casino operator, lost two casinos in Mississippi to the hurricane, the Grand Casino Biloxi and the Grand Casino Gulfport.

Company leaders, including Chairman Gary Loveman, have been vocal in recent weeks in their push to change Mississippi's law to allow the rebuilding of casinos on land.

"I think it's a big, positive development for the people of Mississippi and for the casino industry," Loveman told The Associated Press. "People recognized putting casinos on solid ground is a solid idea."

Loveman said his company would begin planning immediately to replace its Grand Casino in Biloxi but didn't know whether it would return to its Gulfport location.

Pinnacle Entertainment, which operated the destroyed Casino Magic in Biloxi, had been undecided about the pending legislation entering the session. The company didn't want Mississippi to allow land-based casinos to stray too far from their current floating sites.

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman called the decision by lawmakers "a good piece of legislation," but said it doesn't change the company's plans for rebuilding the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, which suffered extensive damage. Because of the way the Beau Rivage was constructed in 1998, the casino barge didn't move from its location.

"This wasn't a concern to us in regards to our plans, but we just wanted to make sure the Gulf Coast maintained its unique character that was in place before the hurricane," Feldman said.

The state Senate passed the bill 29-21 on Monday after the House approved the measure last week. Religious groups opposed any changes in the state law.

"This will start the rebuilding process on the coast," Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, said. "The first step to the recovery is building back the coast."

Mississippi legalized casinos in 1990, but said they must be on barges floating on either the Gulf of Mexico or the Mississippi River. The bill headed to Barbour does not allow the river casinos to move onto dry land.

After the vote, coast business people and civic leaders exchanged hugs and high-fives in a Capitol hallway.

While some gambling companies have said they plan to rebuild over water, others want to go on shore so their buildings will be sturdier and easier to insure.

"This means a new beginning for the Gulf Coast," said Laura Hasty of Biloxi, owner of an advertising agency with several casinos as clients. "This is the hope that we've needed since Aug. 29."

The vote came after two hours of debate in which coast senators pleaded for a way to help their communities recover.

The Mississippi Baptist Convention, whose membership rolls include a quarter of the state's population, lobbied against the proposal.

"Jesus Himself said, 'No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money,'" Baptist Convention spokesman William Perkins said Monday. "We believe the governor of Mississippi and his supporters in the Legislature have chosen to serve money."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.