Before it became the Copa Casino, the ship docked at the Port of Gulfport was the Pride of Mississippi. It took daily gambling trips out to international waters. When dockside gambling became legal, the ship dropped its anchor and never moved. Gamblers came on board 24 hours a day.
"Needless to say," Copa Casino executive Rick Quinn said, "we're very fond of this ship. It's served us well."
But in recent years, Copa owners complained that the vessel was old, and it couldn't compete with other casinos. The felt the time had come for his regular guests to gamble in a much different environment.
Mary Vasilopoulos said gamblers felt the same way. The Florida woman visits the Copa once a month. "I love coming here," Vasilopoulos said. "And I love the machines here. I'm pretty lucky here. But I think it needs a new face."
That's what Copa Casino owners have been saying since they bought the casino three years ago. In the competitive world of casino marketing, they felt the ship handcuffed their ability to attract gamblers. "The Copa has done very, very well," said Quinn. "We're pleased with our revenues and our profit margins. But in order to compete, we have to grow."
After a year of discussions, the Mississippi State Port Authority agreed to a plan that gives the Copa Casino more than a new coat of paint. Instead of continuing to use its 47 year old ship, the Copa owners will buy a bigger barge and dock it right between the port's east and west piers. "I think it will certainly improve our ability to serve our customers," said Quinn.
Replacing the ship with a barge and moving it north and east of its current location will leave a pier without a tenant. According to port leaders, that's not a problem. The pier could become a home for cruise ships.
John Webb is the port's interim director, He said, "I think it would be an ideal opportunity to expand the north end, put the terminal out there, possibly create some new berthing capabilities for the cruise ships."
Attorneys with the port authority and the Copa Casino still have to finalize the lease amendments they agreed to Monday. The Copa is looking at several barges that could replace its ship. A timetable to upgrade its port location hasn't been established.