Mississippi shows way as a hotbed of casinos

October 27, 1994|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

GULFPORT, Miss. -- It's a jolt to drive down U.S. 49 through this small town of shrimpers and fishermen, take a right turn when the main street dead-ends at the beach, and run smack-dab into one of the most ornately impressive gambling casinos you will ever see.

The Grand Casino-Gulfport and its sister 10 miles away, the Grand-Biloxi, would be strong competition for anything in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. But the competition is down home.

There are 14 casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis and another 18 at sites inland along the Mississippi River. Applications to build a dozen more are pending.

In only two years, Mississippi has become one of the most torrid hotbeds of casino gambling in the country. As such, it can provide valuable lessons for Maryland, or any state, considering gaming as a tourist draw or an alternative to raising taxes.

Especially with the other side of the gambling coin having flipped in Mississippi -- revenues are down, some casinos have closed, and others are at the financial brink.

Lester Herrington, Mississippi's deputy revenue commissioner, says the downturn in casino revenues hasn't hurt state and local governments, which together collect 12 percent of revenues in taxes. They took in more than $44 million in casino taxes in fiscal 1992 and more than $128 million last fiscal year. In the first two months of this fiscal year, the state has collected $20.7 million. Sixty-five percent of the money goes into the education fund.

"I don't think anyone expected it to blossom as it has, and tax revenues have continued to grow," Mr. Herrington said. "Most fiscal people involved are wondering how high it's going to go or when the bubble will burst. We don't have history to depend on, so it's a guessing game."

There are Marylanders who would like to see their state join those where an estimated 92 million Americans spent $253 billion at casinos last year.

But some see Maryland as already trailing a large pack. Casino referendums will be held next month in Missouri, Florida, Arkansas, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Wyoming. And casino bills are pending in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to Casinews magazine.

Maryland already has a lottery and Keno as well as horse racing. Fire companies and fraternal groups are allowed to hold casino nights in Prince George's County, and slot machines are run by )) fraternal groups on the Eastern Shore. No one knows exactly how much the charity games are raking in, but one estimate is $500 million.

Both Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke have appointed commissions to study casino gambling. But Maryland's first casino may not depend on state approval if a proposal to locate a $100 million Native American-run gaming facility on Wills Mountain in Western Maryland reaches fruition. Federal law already allows casinos on Native American lands.

The beleaguered horse-racing industry is also a player. With more and more tracks adding slot machines to increase attendance, Laurel and Pimlico owner Joseph A. DeFrancis would support such legislation to help cut losses of $7 million at his tracks last year.

Delaware Park near Wilmington, Del., is installing 1,000 slot machines now, and a referendum is on the Nov. 8 ballot in West Virginia to allow video gambling machines at the Charles Town ** Races.

Not everyone in Mississippi has fallen in love with the casinos. Residents of Henderson Point, a small subdivision near Bay St. Louis, wrote 1,500 letters and attended meetings for two years to get the state gaming commission to rule that a proposed casino near their neighborhood was unsuitable.

"This area is made up of the most diverse, socio-economic, racial mixture you have ever seen in your entire life," said Nonie DeBardeleben, who led the Concerned Citizens to Protect the Isle and the Point. "Everybody kind of kept to themselves until the neighborhood was threatened, then we all came together."

Boat owner a critic

Lewis Skrmetta, a charter boat owner who originally pushed for casino gambling along the Mississippi coast, lately has become a critic.

"It has stimulated a lot of jobs. Record visitors are coming to the area. But our business has suffered," Skrmetta said. "Our cruise to Ship Island is nature-oriented. People who visit national parks are not interested in casinos, and people who come to gamble are not interested in a three-hour ship ride to an island."

The French Connection restaurant in Biloxi, a cozy, little linen-tablecloth and polished-silver bistro is famous for its open-hearth cooking. But it has not opened for lunch since April 1993: not enough business.

"The restaurant and beverage people worked hard to get the vote for casinos," says Nina Schwartzman, a co-owner of The French Connection. "Now there's not a casino that has less than two restaurants inside it. We're not hit too hard yet, financially, but we have a right to expect more customers, not less."

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