After more than four hours of arguments Thursday from both sides, it’s no clearer how the Mississippi Gaming Commission will vote on proposed sites for casinos in Biloxi and Diamondhead.
That decision is expected at the next commission meeting, set for March 16 at Hard Rock Casino Biloxi. The month will give commissioners Al Hopkins, Jerry Griffith Sr. and Tom Gresham time to study reams of reports submitted by the attorneys and letters from supporters and opponents.
It was standing room only at 9:30 a.m. when the hearing for RW Development began at D’Iberville City Hall. Attorneys and experts for and against approval for the casino site on U.S. 90 at Veterans Avenue in Biloxi concluded their arguments about noon. Then the commission went right into a hearing for the Jacobs Entertainment casino site in Diamondhead.
Both casinos have been denied site approval — RW Development in 2008 and Jacobs in 2014 — and arguments for both sites again centered on the mean high-water line.
Like the elusive “X” for someone struggling with algebra, the location of the mean high-water line, its connection to the seawall and its determination for a legal casino site had many in the audience stumped, especially when each side had a different interpretation of the law.
Michael Cavanaugh is attorney for both casino developers. Michael Bruffey, attorney and deputy director of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association, led the arguments against site approval.
MGHA represents 28 casinos in the state and most of the general managers of the Coast casinos attended the morning meeting.
Their chairs were filled at the afternoon hearing by residents of Diamondhead, where Jacobs Entertainment wants to build a casino in their neighborhood.
A herd of feral pigs brought a little comic relief to the otherwise technical discussion on whether the Jacobs’ site is legal. The property is west of Yacht Club Drive north of a man-made canal, with thousands of feet of salt marshland between the site and open waters of the Bay of St. Louis. Henry Seawell, principal with Thompson Engineering, presented evidence he said shows the canal and marsh are part of the Bay of St. Louis, which he said establishes the site as legal.
Scott Andress, a casino attorney with Balch & Bingham, narrated a video showing feral pigs romping on the the marsh and said pigs don’t have fins or gills, so “this is not the bay.”
Cavanaugh countered: “The video is entertaining but that is not expert testimony.”
Gerald Blessey, co-counsel with Cavanaugh on the RW Development site in Biloxi, reviewed the history of tidelands law. Blessey also is special counsel for the city of Biloxi on tidelands and other issues and said the mean high-water line is at the toe of the seawall, making the Biloxi site legal.
Bruffey went back to the days after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when the state Legislature passed HB 45, allowing casinos to come onshore. The intent was not an expansion of casino sites, he said. He cited a 2008 survey, which he said shows the mean high-water line is not the seawall, leaving a strip of public beach between the RW site and the water.
Harrison County Supervisor Beverly Martin and Biloxi City Councilman Felix Gines spoke in favor of the RW casino. Hancock County Administrator Eddie Favre, Hancock County Supervisor Blaine LaFontaine, Diamondhead City Councilman Ernie Novak and Diamondhead Mayor Tommy Schafer told of the economic benefits the Jacobs casino would bring to their communities, although that’s not a consideration for site approval.
The public wasn’t allowed to speak under the rules of the hearing, but Hopkins said the board has received and read many letters. He invited additional written comments from the residents in the audience.
“You submit your stuff to us and we will review it,” he said. “That’s my promise to you.”