Ocean Springs Debates Choctaw Casino Question

Jackson County's casino controversy seems to have divided Ocean Springs. If the Choctaws ever get permission go build a casino on the outskirts of the city, Ocean Springs' mayor sees economic opportunities. However, the board of aldermen sees trouble.

Mayor Connie Moran shared her Choctaw casino thoughts at Monday's Council of Governments meeting. A night later, Ocean Springs aldermen unanimously voted to oppose any Jackson County casino proposal.

Ocean Springs is one of those places where you can stroll down sidewalks and see potters like Betty Francis reading the paper in front of their shops.

"This is like a little bubble in time," the Ocean Springs artist said.

There's a fear amid the oak lined streets that Ocean Springs' bubble could burst if Jackson County takes a gamble on a Choctaw casino outside the city limits. Greg Denyer is Ocean Springs' Ward 4 alderman.

"The constituents I represent don't, have overwhelmingly told me not to support gaming," he said.

Denyer pushed for Tuesday's resolution that said the board opposes gambling anywhere in Jackson County. It passed unanimously.

"I have no one telling me they want dockside or gaming of any kind," Denyer said. "They don't want gambling in Ocean Springs, it doesn't fit our city."

But does it fit the county? The Choctaw Indians own 100 acres of land on Highway 57 that they'd like to turn into a casino resort. Monday night, Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran talked about the Choctaws with the Council of Governments. At that meeting, Moran said she would be willing to listen to a Highway 57 casino proposal from Choctaw Chief Philip Martin. But she says she stopped short of endorsing the idea.

"The Choctaws are the one's that are going to have to convince the voters of Jackson County whether this particular project is worthwhile," she said two days later.

Moran's interest would be to see if Ocean Springs could reap any benefits from the project. However, she claims it's all a non-issue until the tribe comes up with a plan.

"What I'm asking the Choctaws to do is step up to the plate, make a proposal," the mayor said. "The ball is in their court."

In letters to Jackson County supervisors, the Choctaws requested a non-binding referendum on their casino question be held in November, 2008. Jackson County pastors want it this November. The mayor says whenever it's held, the voters must have the final say.

"It's in the Choctaws court to convince the voters in Jackson County that this should be a favorable project," she said.

Alderman Denyer doesn't need convincing. His mind is made up.

"I don't see the upside, I really don't, to having one here," he said.

Before checking on a customer, Betty Francis said the same thing.

"I'd vote against a casino," she admitted, "because we have them in Harrison County and Hancock County. And I can't see the advantage of a casino over in Jackson County."

Because they're a sovereign nation, the Choctaws would be exempt from paying the taxes Harrison and Hancock County casinos pay. However, Mayor Moran thinks the tribe could be required to help fund road projects, water and sewer improvements, and new school construction.

The legislature is still considering whether Jackson County can hold a non-binding referendum on the Choctaw casino question. If it takes no action, supervisors say they'll ask for an Attorney General's opinion about whether a non-binding referendum can be held.

Earlier this month, the Attorney General sent Rep. Danny Guice an opinion.  It said yes, the referendum could be on ballots.