Mississippi Could Amend Casino Law After Biloxi Controversy

Posted on: February 25, 2024, 12:26h. 

Last updated on: February 25, 2024, 12:26h.

Mississippi lawmakers in Jackson are considering legislation that would overhaul the state’s rules on how new casinos along the Gulf Coast are approved.

Biloxi casino Mississippi
The Margaritaville and Golden Nugget casinos in Biloxi. Mississippi lawmakers are mulling legislation that would amend the state’s casino act to make it more difficult for new casino projects to be greenlit along the Gulf Coast. (Image: Kayak)

Senate Bill 2780 was introduced earlier this month by four Republican state Senators and one Democrat. The measure seeks to amend the Mississippi Gaming Control Act to change the application process for new casino projects in Biloxi and other Gulf towns.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which caused much damage to Gulf casinos, state lawmakers allowed casinos to rebuild inland, so long as the gaming floors remained 800 feet from their original barges. For a new casino on the Gulf, a proposed gaming space must be within 800 feet of the mean high-water line.

Last year, Biloxi’s local government contracted a private company to construct a $3 million pier near the intersection of Veterans Avenue and Beach Boulevard (US Highway 90). The project gave the firm — RW Development, controlled by businessman Ray Wooldridge — access to property that’s within 800 feet of the mean high-water line. That’s critical to Wooldridge, who has for years been trying to secure state approval to build a casino resort.

Wooldridge owns the Big Play Entertainment Center just inland from where the pier will be built. He wants to replace the arcade and amusement facility with a casino resort.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch sued Biloxi and Harrison County for issuing the pier contract without approval from the state. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled against Fitch and concluded that the county possessed the authority to approve the project without the developer holding a state Tidelands lease.

Casino Licensing Overhaul

SB 2780 would change the process for a Gulf casino developer to mandate that all applicants first obtain a Tidelands lease from the state. The Mississippi government owns the state’s tidelands — lands that are covered and uncovered daily by water as a result of tides.

The legislation would require casino developers to obtain a tidelands lease through the secretary of state’s office and be required to pay annual rent. The goal of the measure is to presumably thwart future casino developments following the controversial RW Development approval.

After RW secured access to property within the 800-foot mean high-water line, the Mississippi Gaming Commission in January lent site approval for a casino development.

Now more than ever, we need to restore a consistent regulatory environment to preserve the sand beach and encourage further investment and improvements in the Coast casino market,” bill sponsor Sen. David Blount (D-Hinds) told the Sun Herald.

Blount said he worked with Biloxi’s current casinos in authoring the bill.

The legislation seeks to make Wooldridge’s casino dreams costly, as SB 2780 would additionally amend the requirements for a new casino to include a minimum of 300 hotel rooms, a 40,000-square-foot casino space, and an amenity “unique to the licensee’s market to encourage economic development and promote tourism.” SB 2780 has been directed to the Senate Gaming Committee for initial review.

Wooldridge thinks the Gulf casinos are simply afraid of new competition.

Wooldridge Backstory

Wooldridge sold his modular furniture company Space Master International in 1999 for $270 million. He used part of the proceeds — $56 million — to acquire a 35% stake in the NBA Charlotte Hornets.

Wooldridge was instrumental in relocating the Hornets to New Orleans, which happened in 2002. Wooldridge sold his stake in the Pelicans organization in 2004 for $65 million.

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