Casino Gambling

A new beach casino by Big Play? Biloxi OKs lease but state disagrees.

RW Development may have found a way to build a casino along U.S. 90 at Veterans Avenue after all.

On Tuesday, the Biloxi Council gave unanimous approval for an option to lease waterfront land to the developer. The lease would require the company to build a public municipal pier at the end of Veterans Avenue.

It also could be what RW Development, owned by Ray Wooldridge, needs to get site approval from the Mississippi Gaming Commission, which already denied the site three times because the company doesn’t control property to the water’s edge.

The most recent denial in March 2017 is on appeal and awaiting a decision by Circuit Court Judge Chris Schmidt.

Michael Cavanaugh, attorney for RW, attended Tuesday’s Biloxi Council meeting but declined to comment.

The lease says RW proposes building “a first-class, multi-use public municipal pier with connecting pedestrian walkways.”

It’s clear from the lease that a casino may still be a consideration. The lease mentions “no gaming shall be allowed on the public municipal pier nor on any vessels docked or berthed at the pier.”

The lease would give RW non-exclusive rights to the pier, so that it could be used by RW customers and the public.

The challenge

City attorney Peter Abide said the Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann sent a letter saying Biloxi doesn’t have the right to build and maintain piers. He asked the city to cease and desist with this attempt to lease a state-held trust property.

“We disagree with that,” Abide said. He told the council they could go ahead and vote on the lease option, which was placed on the agenda by Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich, who was returning from a mayor’s convention in Hawaii on Tuesday and was not at the meeting.

It would be RW Development, not Biloxi, building the pier, he said. Before this, Harrah’s Gulf Coast Casino built a pier at Oak Street in an agreement with the city.

Abide said there are many other approvals that are necessary before RW can execute the lease.

Vincent Creel, public affairs director for Biloxi, said the lease is about replacing the pier that was destroyed by hurricanes and is not about a new casino. The city is following the same path it took when it partnered with Harrah’s to build a pier at Oak Street, he said.

“We used private money to build a public pier,” he said. “Who can be against using private money for public access?”

The terms

The lease option approved by the Biloxi Council is for one year for a $5,000 payment from RW Development. Two one-year extensions are permitted for an additional $5,000 a year.

Once RW goes ahead with the lease option, the company has 90 days to start construction of the pier and 18 months to complete it, even if a casino isn’t built. The lease also mentions the possibility of a pedestrian overpass.

The pier would be a joint public-private project, the lease says, built and maintained at RW’s expense, with Biloxi responsible for maintaining and repairing the public pedestrian walkways and crossings.

The city owns the upland property bordering the tidelands. That land borders property owned by RW Development on the southeast side of U.S. 90 and Veterans. The company also owns considerable property on the east and west side of Veterans north of 90, including Big Play Entertainment Center.

The lease is for 40 years from date of execution with one 25-year renewal.

Slot machine tax

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the Biloxi Council removed from the agenda without comment a proposal to increase the tax for every slot machine at Biloxi’s eight casinos. The tax generates $1.3 million a year for the city.

Casinos pay an annual license fee of $150 per slot machine. Biloxi can change this tax annually upon notice to operators and the State Tax Commission, the ordinance said, and it hasn’t changed since the first casino opened in 1992.

The proposal, introduced by Gilich, asked to raise the tax to $200 per machine. That would mean another $300,000 a year for the city’s general fund.

Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.