AP News

Miss. regulators approve changes for new casinos


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Gaming Commission approved a new rule Thursday that would require new casinos to offer more hotel rooms, more gambling space and larger restaurants.

However, commissioners reduced the required quality of the hotel before voting 3-0 to approve the rule.

Commissioners say the rule is an attempt to expand a stagnant casino market by making sure new projects draw in new visitors, not just steal them from the state's 30 existing casinos.

"With the competition and density of casinos in nearby drive-in markets, we no longer can just add a casino and expect visitorship to increase," said Gaming Commission Chairman John Hairston.

The state had required that casino owners invest $1 in other facilities for every $1 they put into a casino. But Hairston said some developers had proposed small casinos and small adjoining facilities.

"As casino applications became very small, we began to be alarmed that amenities weren't going to bring anything to the market," Hairston said.

A Gulfport investment group had to increase its planned investment twice last year before winning approval to build the Harbor Town casino. The company is still trying to raise money to build the $112 million project.

The new regulations approved Thursday would require 300 hotel rooms, at least a 40,000-square-foot casino floor, space to park 500 cars, a restaurant that can seat at least 200 people and a fine-dining restaurant seating 75.

Originally, the commission had proposed that hotels must be equal to or higher than a four-star rating from the Forbes Travel Guide. But a number of people objected to that luxurious standard. Mississippi currently has no hotels rated four stars or five stars by Forbes, which took over the former Mobil Travel Guide.

"We certainly didn't want to be closed out of a potential market," said Diamondhead Mayor Chuck Ingraham.

Instead, the commission agreed that a hotel must be equal to or higher than a AAA three-diamond rating. Many casino hotels already meet that lower bar.

Hairston said 300 rooms is a "guideline," and that if a casino wants to build luxurious, more expensive rooms, the commission might agree to fewer rooms. He said that casinos in the state's smaller markets — Vicksburg, Natchez and Greenville — might not be required to have that many rooms. No current casino in those cities has more than 149 rooms. Finally, he said that if casinos offered to build an impressive visitor attraction, the commission might waive the room requirement entirely.

The rule was also loosened to say that a casino didn't have to have an attraction or amenity of its own, but could instead "support" an amenity.

"They can partner with the community to provide an amenity that may have more value," Hairston said, giving the example of an amusement park.

The new regulations won't apply to existing casinos. The commission says casino sites already approved have until Dec. 31 to build under the old rules. Hairston said he expected two casinos proposed for D'Iberville, just north of Biloxi, were the only likely candidates to move forward before Dec. 31.

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