Gaming Commission votes no on two casino applications

Less than four hours after the Mississippi Gaming Commission again denied site approval for casinos in Biloxi and Diamondhead, representatives of RW Development said they were “shocked” by the decision and vowed to immediately appeal.

The statement by RW Development capped an already dramatic day with the players assembled at Hard Rock Casino Biloxi for the March Gaming Commission meeting.

An executive session that lasted nearly 90 minutes gave the applicants, as well as the managers of many of the Coast casinos, neighbors near the Diamondhead site, and assorted attorneys and casino executives, time to speculate on how the commission would rule.

When the meeting resumed, Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey recommended the sites be denied. Without discussion on their reasons, commissioners Jerry Griffith Sr., Tom Gresham and chairman Al Hopkins voted to deny the Diamondhead site and then the Biloxi site.

The response around the room was silence.

These are different commissioners from those who turned down down previous applications for site approval. Jacobs Entertainment’s Diamondhead site was denied in 2014, and RW Development’s site on U.S. 90 at Veterans in Biloxi was denied in 2008. Both developers refiled their applications last year hoping to have success with new commissioners.

“All of the expert testimony submitted at the February hearing supported approval of the seawall as the State’s ‘mean high water line’ for starting the 800 feet required for gaming sites,” RW Development said in a statement. “We are concerned that the meeting was adjourned without any explanation of the decision and that the scheduled public comment on the agenda was canceled without notice.”

The commissioners left after the meeting without commenting on their decision.

Diamondhead Mayor Tommy Schafer said some healing is needed because the battle over the casino site left his community divided.

“There was passion on both sides,” he said, and he hopes there can now be some cooperative efforts.

“Diamondhead does have a legal, approved site for a casino (to the east of the site for which Jacobs requested approval),” said Frank Faulstich. “I just hope this brings finality to the Jacobs site being a legal site.”

Michael Cavanaugh, attorney for both developers, now has 20 days to appeal.

Cavanaugh said he thinks it will be up to the courts to determine where the mean high-water line is, which was the basis for his arguments for site approval on both properties. Asked if he thinks the state legislature should clarify the law, Cavanaugh said, “I’d just like to apply the law.”

Richard Bennett, who chairs the House of Representatives Gaming Committee, said he approved of the votes and is glad the commission is being consistent.

“The industry knows what the rules are and they’re still the rules,” he said. Mississippi has done casinos right, he said, with no hint of scandal in 25 years. “This would have been a terrible precedent to change what we’re doing,” he said.

“We are pleased to see the commission honoring the intent of our Legislature,” said Michael Bruffey, attorney and deputy director of the Mississippi Gaming & Hospitality Association, which represents the state’s casinos. “It is likely there will be a time when we will need our legislature to support our industry in the future, and we think it is essential that our legislators know that we will abide by and defend their expressed intent when they come to our aid.”

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