Coliseum Referendum Sparks Quite A Debate

The battle to expand the coliseum convention center turned into a face-to-face confrontation Tuesday. Expansion supporters appeared outside the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association office. That office happens to be the opposition group's Biloxi headquarters.

The chatter surrounding the Harrison County referendum escalated into quite a verbal spat.

"No bull, no bull, no bull," the coliseum supporters chanted as they approached the opposition office.

The entourage of four and a mascot confronted referendum opponent Bob Bennett.

"The information that you're out using as a scare tactic is bull," yelled coliseum assistant director Matt McDonnell.

He was on a lunch break during this debate.

"It may be a scare tactic," Bennett shot back, "but it's a possibility you have to consider before you vote on something."

Much of the sidewalk debate focused on the tax hike terminology used in Enough is Enough's anti expansion literature. Its ads said Harrison County taxpayers would end up paying for the tax.

"We just want the folks to know that their taxes aren't going to be increased," said McDonnell, pointing out that the two percent tax would be placed on Harrison County hotel guests.

Bennett responded by asking, "We're not going to get a hurricane? We're not going to get a terrorist attack?".

His group believes either of those scenarios could place the tax burden on residents.

Seconds later, the coordinator of the support group grabbed an anti-expansion ad. The top of it had a headline that read "The referendum is simply a tax increase you will pay."

Flint shouted, "That is a lie. That isn't true. That's bull."

At that point, Bennett decided to end the debate.

"Respect my wishes on this," he said. "You'll have your news conference. Do what you want. Stay out of ours."

Once inside the opposition headquarters, the no new taxes group said it wasn't against convention center expansion. It was against the general obligation bond that would fund the $68 million project. They contend property owners would have to cover that bond if hotel tax revenues didn't meet projections.

Sam Albritton is organizing the opposition group.

"They could have used a specific revenue bond to issue these taxes without putting it on property taxes," he said, "obligating the general public."

The opponents argued that a one percent tax already being collected for a 1996 convention center expansion could easily cover new plans -- because that tax will always be on the books.

"We're asking the coliseum to reconsider how they are funding this," Albritton said.

But coliseum officials said if they did that, they would have to wait another two years to get legislative approval. And that could add millions of dollars to the $68 million project.