The crowd laughed, applauded and remembered as some of the “Pioneers of Riverboat Gaming” on Thursday helped the Southern Gaming Summit celebrate 25 years of casinos in Mississippi.
Timothy Hinkley had come down from Iowa with Bernie Goldstein and helped open the first casino in Mississippi and the South on Aug. 1, 1992. Hinkley said the Isle of Capri had the monopoly — and lines “around the clock” for two weeks — until more casinos began opening in Biloxi.
They also had first choice of employees, and said people who had left Biloxi for jobs were able to come home.
“We got nothing but the best,” he said, and one of the first employees was Billy Creel, in whose memory the Creel Award for tourism is still presented every year.
The Isle management had to estimate how much cash to have on hand for the opening, Hinkley said, and when they started running low that first night, Creel told them to call their banker, Chevis Swetman from The Peoples Bank.
“We called Chevis at 10 or 11 at night,” Hinkley said, and he recalls Swetman showing up in his car, wearing pajamas and toting the money. Swetman later said he wore his jeans, but did indeed deliver the needed cash.
“We were open for three weeks and we had to shut down again,” Hinkley recalled. After Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida, it headed into the Gulf. So the Isle riverboats sought safe harbor in Biloxi’s Back Bay until the storm passed.
Moderator Lee Dillard, assistant general manager and vice president of Caesars Entertainment, kept the stories coming at the Coast Convention Center as he asked the panelists about the start of casinos in Mississippi and what they see for the future.
“We thought it would bring in $35 million,” state Sen. Tommy Gollott said of the casino industry. Now, 25 years later, the casinos have paid $24 billion just in casino taxes to the state, counties, cities, school districts and first responders, making the casino legislation one of the greatest bills ever passed in the state, he said.
“I threw out the first dice,” Gollott said, which opened the first casino in Biloxi. “I threw out a 7,” he recalled with a laugh.
Three fairly new casino companies shared the success in Mississippi in the early days, said Lyle Berman, founder of Grand Casinos. The Nevada casino operators weren’t interested in Mississippi at the beginning, he said, and the Isle of Capri, the Grand and Marlin Torgeson with Casino Magic dominated.
Berman said the Grand did more business with two casinos than the entire state had been projected to do.
His biggest mistake came in Tunica, where, he said, “I had too big a vision.” The hotels were built several miles away from the riverboat casinos, he said, and customers had to be shuttled between them. “It never developed into the city I thought it would be,” he said.
Hinkley said his biggest mistake came in the race for Biloxi mayor soon after casinos opened. He donated to two of the three candidates. “You can figure out who won,” he said, as the crowd laughed and he added, “That stays with me.”
Gollott recalled meeting Jack Binion, owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, and suggesting Binion could buy all the property in East Biloxi from Oak Street to the bridge for a few million dollars.
Binion told him at the time he was opening a casino in north Mississippi, but on Thursday told Gollott, “Senator, you can kick me in the behind one more time because I didn’t come to Biloxi.”
Binion said Mississippi is the only state other than Nevada that reached its potential with casinos.
“Mississippi did it right,” he said.
“They structured it for economic instead of taxes,” he said, ticking off a list of things he said Mississippi did right. The state went with unlimited licenses, used Nevada regulation and put on no qualifications that helped insiders.
“They got guys that were honest and pragmatic to be commissioners,” he said, and those first Mississippi Gaming Commission members admitted they knew nothing about casinos.
“The truth was it was the greatest thing ever,” Binion said, and made Mississippi the best place to operate outside of Nevada.
For the future, the panelists agreed Mississippi casinos need to add more amenities, “just like Las Vegas has over the years,” Berman said.
Hinkley said the industry has to figure out how to turn today’s social gambler into casino gamblers.
“Technology is changing our customer,” he said, and a “dollar a pull” is not going to satisfy them anymore. “You’ve got to push the envelope because things are changing so fast,” he said.