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Full Day’s Worth of Historic Meetings: Gaming Commission to Hear From Biloxians

July 13, 2008

By Mary Perez, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Jul. 13–BILOXI — Thursday could be the most important day in Biloxi’s economic future since Hurricane Katrina.

In the morning, the Mississippi Gaming Commission will hold its July meeting in Biloxi to hear what the community has to say about allowing RW Development to build South Beach Resort & Casino north of U.S. 90, across from the sand beach.

In the afternoon the Biloxi Planning Commission will vote on whether to recommend 81 acres in East Biloxi be collectively rezoned waterfront. The land from Dukate to Kuhn streets includes the former Tivoli site, where developers had hopedto build a billion-dollar casino. Mayor A.J. Holloway vetoed the rezoning for that project last year.

At last Thursday’s meeting the Planning Commission’s Maps & Text Committee agreed 8-1-1 to vote on the rezoning even if the Gaming Commission doesn’t decide that day whether to approve or reject South Beach. Commissioner Gary Lechner left the meeting early and did not vote, but later said, “I think we owe it to the Gaming Commission to see what they do with RW Development.” If the Gaming Commission turns down South Beach, rezoning in East Biloxi would be a moot point, he said, because a casino wouldn’t be allowed on that stretch in East Biloxi.

Gaming Commission Executive Director Larry Gregory said, “We’ve seen the color slides of what it’s going to look like,” and Thursday’s meeting is strictly for the Gaming Commission to look at the public beach issues of South Beach and the mean high-water line.

“The commission will make its decision based on what we hear,” said Chairman Jerry St. Pe.

There are really two concerns, said Gregory. First is defining where the mean high-water line is that begins the 800-foot measurement for onshore casinos. The Gaming Commission will also look at the requirement that the casino must control the land to the water’s edge and make it an integral part of the resort.

“The tension from the legal standpoint is if they can have that degree of control,” said former Gaming Commission Chairman Len Blackwell. Applicant RW Development owns land south of U.S. 90 but a strip of public sand beach exists between the South Beach property line and the water.

“I think that’s something the Gaming Commission can go either way on,” said Blackwell, who calls South Beach “one of the most interesting issues that I’ve seen in gaming law. It’s going to have great impact on the Coast.”

The developers aren’t looking for the decision to affect the entire 26 miles of Mississippi coastline. “That would really screw the market up,” he said. “This is a very finite area.”

Both the toe of the seawall and mean high-water line, a term used in tidelands law, will be argued at Thursday’s meeting. “Every time hurricanes came we’ve done something to protect the area down there,” Blackwell said. Take away the man-made seawall, built in the 1920s, and the sand trucked in during the 1950s and surveyors consider the toe of the seawall to be the mean high-tide mark, he said. That definition would give South Beach control of the land to the mean high-water line.

The Mississippi Legislature passed two laws after Katrina that dealt withthe Tidelands lease and the 800-foot onshore rule for casinos. “I think they had to realize what the mean high tide was,” said Blackwell. “I think they purposely left some loopholes.”

RW would spend about $700 million for the casino as part of more than $1 billion it’s investing in the Veterans Avenue area. The casino project would include hotel rooms and condotels, an entertainment venue, shopping, restaurants and meeting space.

In East Biloxi, former Mayor Jerry O’Keefe is one of dozens of applicants asking that their land be collectively rezoned waterfront. It now goes to the full Planning Commission on Thursday for a vote and then to the City Council to make the decision.

“It’s the same thing they’ve done for groups of other property owners” near IP Casino, and on Oak and Pine streets, said attorney David Wheeler, who is representing the applicants. He said waterfront zoning allows many more things than just casinos and he doesn’t think the Tivoli site within the boundaries makes this request any more unusual.

“I don’t know what the rush is to come to this decision,” said Lechner. The Tivoli and South Beach are similar sites, and believes it will send the wrong message if the Planning Commission were to vote on the Tivoli rezoning before the Gaming Commission decides on South Beach.

Holloway said there is a major difference between South Beach, which owns land south of U.S. 90, and Tivoli, whose property is only north of the highway. “Since there is already development on the south side of the Biloxi Strip,” where South Beach would be located, “I do not believe this project would create pressure to open the entire beachfront to casino gaming.”

At the Southern Gaming Summit in May, Holloway said, “Biloxi is the engine, and the fuel is the 800-foot onshore gaming legislation passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor. I say let’s take it out for a test drive.”

That test comes Thursday.

If you go

The Mississippi Gaming Commission meeting is at 9 a.m. at the Biloxi Community Center, 500 Howard Avenue.

The Biloxi Planning Commission meets at 2 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Municipal Building, 676 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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