25-year evolution of South Mississippi casinos
Six years ago, Jimmy Buffett opened Margaritaville Casino Biloxi with a concert for 4,000 invited guests who filled the balconies and the waterfront bar, while hundreds more listened from a flotilla of boats anchored offshore.
Buffett opened with "Start on the Water" and treated the crowd to his trademark song "Margaritaville" along with "5 O'clock Somewhere."
Between songs, Buffett peppered the crowd with memories of his hometown of nearby Pascagoula and his first professional gig at Trader John's in Biloxi.
The hourlong concert was streamed live to Parrotheads across the country on Margaritaville Radio on SIRIUS/XM and brought an optimism for a fun new casino in Biloxi.
A volcano "exploded" in the bar that overlooked the Back Bay, as a Biloxi Cutie slid into a giant Margarita. Stilt walkers added to the entertainment. Yeah, Margaritaville was the first on the Coast to bring table games outdoors.
Two years later, the casino closed. And it's still vacant.
Michael Cavanaugh, attorney for MVB Holding LLC, which operated the casino, said the company was unable to resolve a dispute with a Hattiesburg company that is landlord for the casino site. Without that agreement, he said, MVB couldn't secure financing to build a hotel and other amenities needed for a viable resort.
The Mississippi Gaming Commission was right to require that all future casinos have a hotel and amenities, he said at the time.
The former casino sits empty and silent, with a price tag of $18 million for the developer with the next big idea.
"We've had some pretty good interest in the building," said Ray Stronsky, vice president of gaming and hospitality for NAI Sawyer in Gulfport, both for casino and non-casino operations.
Sports betting will start soon in Mississippi, and that makes the site even more attractive, he said.
"The building's still like new," Stronsky said. It has been well-maintained, he said, and has two escalators, three elevators, three kitchens and four bar areas.
"There's plenty of room to build a hotel," he said. The 68,000-square-foot building on three levels sits on 10 acres, and Stronsky said an additional 30 adjacent acres are available.
One of the biggest challenges was getting to Margaritaville, and Stronsky said potential investors are watching to see what will happen with the proposed Pine Street extension. The new and widened road would complete the eastern leg of the loop around East Biloxi and link all the casinos in that area.
That road access also is paramount to the construction of Foxwoods Resort Casino at Biloxi Pointe, which is proposed for the site of the former Heinz plant, just to the north of the Margaritaville site.
Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort Casino, considered the largest casino resort in the United States, announced in 2016 it will develop and operate a destination resort and casino on 23 acres owned by Louisiana businessman Chris Ferrara.
“It's alive and active,” Ferrara said this week.
It's a matter of the casinos needing the road and the road needing financing from the casinos.
The Biloxi Council approved the road and a $5.7 million contribution from the Mississippi Development Authority. The agreement calls for Ferrara to provide $7 million and the rights of way for the new road.
Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich said at the time that Biloxi wants to bring new life, jobs and entertainment to that area of East Biloxi, "but we're going to make sure that all of the funding is in place from all of the parties involved."