Change in regulations could allow casinos up and down Mississippi Coast | SunHerald

By Mary Perez

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The South Beach casino project in Biloxi — denied by the previous Mississippi Gaming Commission members — could be back on the table under a change in regulations proposed by the new commissioners.

The changes to the state’s casino legislation also could allow a casino at the Tivoli site in Biloxi and spots along the beaches in Harrison and Hancock counties. That is because it removes the requirement that the developer own or control the land all the way to the water.

Richard Bennett said he is “adamantly opposed” to the change, and as chairman of the House Gaming Committee he plans to fight it.

“I think this is legislative authority and not the commission’s,” he said. “The Legislature is going to look at what our options are to stop it.”

Commission Chairman Al Hopkins said Monday it’s premature to be talking about the proposal because the commission hasn’t yet presented it.

However, public notice has been sent to the casino owners and other interested parties and Hopkins said the proposal likely will be on the agenda at the commission’s Oct. 20 meeting in Jackson.

The public then would have 25 days to comment on it, making the November meeting the earliest the commissioners could vote on it.

The state Legislature doesn’t convene until January.

Former Commissioners Jerry St. Pé, John Hairston and Nolen Canon ruled against South Beach casino sites because the developer did not own property all the way to the water.

The new commissioners, Hopkins and Jerry Griffith Sr., both of Gulfport, and Tom Gresham of Indianola, propose striking out those sections of the state statute.

Crossed out in the proposal is the section that says, “Any point of reference used to determine the 800-foot distance from the mean high water line must be located on the applicant or licensee’s premises. The applicant or licensee must own and/or lease the land that is contiguous both to the parcel used to conduct gaming and the point of reference used to determine the mean high water line, and this land must be shown to be an integral part of the project.”

Hopkins said the changes bring casino regulations in line with the law.

The regulations still would say the commission has final authority in reviewing and approving each site.

The regulation was changed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to allow casinos to rebuild on land. Known as the 800-foot rule, it limits casinos to within 800 feet of the water, but not the hotel, restaurants or other amenities. The 800-foot and the mean high-water line rules were inserted by state legislators to limit where casinos could be built.

Griffith said the proposal would correct the regulations to match state law.

“It’s not a done deal,” he said.

And other requirements must be met before any project can come to the commission, he said, such as city approval.

He and the other commissioners have served for a year and a half and Griffith said he was unaware of the public opposition to a casino in Diamondhead and more in Biloxi.

“This is an open state,” he said, which means there is no limit to the number of casinos that can be built if developers can meet the regulations.

Griffith said he will read the consider comments and recommendations before voting.

The House Journal in September 2005, when the state House passed H.B. 45 to allow onshore casinos, recorded the intentions of those who voted in favor of the bill. Several said they voted to allow casinos to move off barges, but not for the expansion of gambling.

Legislators recently have suggested limiting licenses rather than opening South Mississippi to more casinos.

When Mississippi opened its first casinos in 1992, it was one of only a few states to have them. Now 39 states have casinos and lawmakers in nearby Alabama, Georgia and Florida are talking of opening or expanding casinos, which would hurt Coast casinos.

Coast casino revenue is down by $159 million from a high of $1.3 billion in 2007 to $1.1 billion in 2015.

Competition has hurt the river casinos, reducing Mississippi’s revenue there by $795 million from a high of $2.9 billion in 2008 to $2.1 billion in 2015.

Mary Perez: 228-896-2354, @MaryPerezSH

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