Florida casino expansion worrisome for Coast

Mississippi could lose millions of dollars and thousands of jobs because of impending casino expansions in Florida, according to a recent analysis by a legislative watchdog group.

So the state’s gaming industry is taking steps to counter the competition. And some lawmakers are pushing a bill that would give tax breaks for casinos that want to build tourist attractions to woo non-gamers.
Floridians represented 21.2 percent of visitors to Mississippi’s 29 casinos in 2007, according to a memo issued by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. Most gambled on the Gulf Coast.

If half the Florida market decides to stay in that state to gamble at expanded casinos, Mississippi could lose USD 254 million in gaming and tax revenue and 3,191 direct jobs, the memo said.

More conservative numbers show that if 25 percent of the Florida market is lost, Mississippi could lose USD 75.7 million in gaming and tax revenue and 1,595 direct jobs.

PEER Executive Director Max Arinder said his staff used information from the state Gaming Commission, the gaming industry and the state of Florida to form a „best guess“ of the potential impact. He said Mississippi „would be wise to do a little contingency planning.“

„I don’t think anybody’s saying the sky’s falling, but we certainly want to be aware,“ he said. „These will be very attractive venues, very competitive. Anytime you create a choice (for customers), there’s the potential for loss.“

House Bill 1196 would allow Mississippi casinos to „diversify in other areas of the state,“ said House Tourism Committee Chairwoman Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian. As an example, she cited a Tunica casino that wants to invest in a public-private project to build a sports arena.

The bill would allow tax breaks for casino companies that invest at least USD 10 million in non-gaming attractions such as theme and water parks, motor speedways and museums. The bill would also offer incentives to high-end hotel and golf course projects.

Seminole casinos in central and south Florida recently received permission to offer more than bingo-type games.

They are expected to install „as many as 15,000 slot machines over the next few months,“ the March 5 PEER memo said. The casinos can also offer card games and poker tournaments.

„They each have seemingly comparable amenities to Mississippi casinos, including large hotels, entertainment, spas and fine dining,“ the memo said of tribal casinos in Hollywood, Fla., and Tampa.

Driving distance will be a „key factor in patrons‘ decisions to visit Florida versus Mississippi casinos,“ it added.

Tallahassee is halfway between Biloxi and Tampa, where the nearest Florida casino is located. Also, some airlines partner with Gulf Coast casinos to offer nonstop flights to Gulfport from Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators‘ Association, said PEER‘s estimates sound accurate but that the overall impact remains to be seen.

She expects a loss of gamblers from areas like Tallahassee and Atlanta. But Martin cited a „strong customer base“ in Mississippi.

Casinos here are „always adding new games and new amenities,“ she said. The USD 700 million Margaritaville Casino & Resort being developed by Harrah’s and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett is expected to open in Biloxi in 2010.

Martin’s organization is also asking cities, including Biloxi and Gulfport, to hold off on recently-proposed smoking bans.

„Anything that will put us at a disadvantage should not be enacted,“ she said.

Legislation similar to the tax-break bill has failed repeatedly in the past. Peranich said the bill will likely head to negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

But state Sen. Lee Yancey says the measure should be considered with a study, to be completed in August, of the state and federal tax structure in Mississippi.

„If you look at (casino) revenues since Hurricane Katrina, they’ve shot through the roof. They’re doing extremely well,“ said Yancey, a Republican from Brandon, who has authored a bill that would limit gaming to the seven counties where casinos exist.

Mississippi casinos grossed a record USD 2.8 billion in 2007. Tax revenues from gaming in 2007 were more than USD 332 million.