It was casinos that led South Mississippi back from disaster when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and the Gulf oil spill came ashore in 2010, said Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, who brought the AGA’s “Get to Know Gaming” tour to Biloxi on Wednesday.
“I’m even more interested in what we can accomplish in the next five years,” Freeman said.
The tour brought more than 100 people to the presentation at IP Casino Resort. It is the largest attendance yet for the tour, which also visited Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The presentation came just two days after the start of a year-long 25th anniversary observance of the first casino opening in Biloxi.
A replay of the AGA presentation can be seen on Periscope.tv.
Freeman, along with executives from four Biloxi casinos and other panelists, pointed to the jobs created, the small businesses that have benefited from selling to local casinos and the millions of dollars in donations the casinos have made to area nonprofit organizations over 25 years.
State Rep. Richard Bennett of Long Beach, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, said people were afraid the crime rate would increase when casinos opened.
“It had the opposite effect. Crime actually went down in Harrison County,” he said. “It went down in Biloxi.”
He said the casino tax revenue provided money to train and equip local law enforcement.
The state’s casinos have generated nearly $6.5 billion in tax revenue since the Isle of Capri opened in August 1992, Freeman said — enough to fund Mississippi’s entire budget for a year.
But he said the Coast can’t sit back and celebrate for the next year if the market is to avoid the path of Atlantic City and Tunica, where slow reaction to competition cut deeply into revenues.
“I think the days of expansion are largely behind us,” Freeman said, but he is certain casinos will be coming to Georgia.
Markets in Mississippi should be concerned, he said.
“The biggest risk is complacency,” Freeman said.
Freeman said he is encouraged to see Coast casino leaders working together.
“That’s critical,” he said, and he urged them to keep the momentum going — “Reinvest, reinvigorate, change to a tourism-style experience.”
Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said he’s seen the cooperation among casino general managers on the Coast and even more so in Tunica.
“They’re fighting a tougher battle so they have to come together,” he said.
Bennett said he thinks the Coast market still has some expansion, but he doesn’t want to consider an expansion of taxes on casinos.
“We do not need to have a threat of a tax every year,” he said, and asked what casino company is going to reinvest if taxes aren’t stable.
In Tunica, the supervisors continued to raise local taxes, he said, and “they kept shooting at the cash cow.”
The Tunica market compounded that mistake by building attractions away from the casinos, Bennett said.
“Put them where people can walk to them,” he said.
Jerry St. Pé, former chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, attended the meeting and said “there’s no way not to be impressed” with the accomplishments of the casino industry over the years and the continued investment.
“Twenty-five years ago, we rescued tourism on this Coast with the advent of casino gaming,” he said.
Since then, he said, there hasn’t seen a single incident of “impropriety, criminality or scandal” in the regulation of casinos.