PEER Staff Says Florida Gaming Will Slash Mississippi Jobs, Revenues

BILOXI (WLOX) -- Three thousand Mississippi casino jobs may be in jeopardy. Here's why. The Seminole Tribe of Florida has a compact with that state's governor to put class III slot machines in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Miami, Ft. Lauderdate and Cape Coral. And according to a Mississippi legislative PEER report obtained by WLOX News, that competition could slash revenues and jobs at every Mississippi casino.

PEER's staff did a study to look at "potential loss of patrons, gaming revenues, and jobs that Mississippi might realize as a result of the Compact" agreed to in January. That Compact allows slot machines, blackjack, baccarat, and limited poker tournaments at the Seminole tribe's casinos. In other words, many of the same games offered at south Mississippi casinos will be in Florida.

"The last thing we need is to have a decrease in the available visits to the coast," said Palace Casino general manager Keith Crosby.

Yet, Mississippi's PEER staff report to the house gaming committee chairman basically says the state may lose gamblers to those tribal casinos in the Tampa, and Ft. Lauderdale areas.

Tom Grbac believes that means Florida wins and Mississippi loses. "I would think it does," the tour bus operator said outside the Palace.

Grbac's buses regularly bring gamblers from Florida to Biloxi. However, he expects his trip numbers to be reduced now that the Seminole Indians have a compact to offer slot action that rivals south Mississippi's games.

"Anytime you've got x amount of people who are going to play, and you divide them up into locations, it takes revenue from one place and puts it somewhere else," Grbac said.

The last time a survey was done, it determined that almost 19 percent of south Mississippi's casino visitors came from Florida. So, if the games were the same, the PEER staff speculated that anywhere from a quarter to half of those guests would gamble at home.

Beverly Martin is both the head of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association, and the chairperson of the Harrison County Tourism Commission.

"It's going to affect pretty much every aspect of tourism," she said.

Martin pointed out that hotels and restaurants could lose guests. And she said, the airport could lose bookings on its Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale flights.

On top of that, PEER determined Mississippi casino revenues would potentially be slashed by as much as $130 million. And as many as 3,200 Mississippi people could lose their jobs.

"People tend to go to the casino that's going to be closer to them. So it's definitely going to have a negative impact on us," said Martin.

The tourism commission chairperson came up with one other worry not mentioned in the PEER report. Where will people in Atlanta go for their gambling fun, she wondered. Atlanta is a big tour bus draw for south Mississippi. But, according to Mapquest, it's a 425 mile drive from Atlanta to Biloxi, and just 416 miles from Atlanta to Tampa. So, Martin fears some of the Georgia bus business will go to Florida and not Mississippi.

"Oh she's very right," said Crosby. "It is another choice. Rather than let's go visit Biloxi again, let's go somewhere different this time. And now, they've got another choice."

Both Crosby and Martin expect new marketing campaigns to be launched to keep Florida gamblers interested in south Mississippi casinos.

"Because the more we have to offer, the more likely that we'll encourage those visitors to maybe drive that extra few miles to get here," said Martin.

Several legislators believe the key to fight off Florida's casino challenge may be a tax incentive package they're trying to finalize. That tax break would be offered to casinos that build at least $10 million in non-gaming amenities. Proponents of the bill say the tax incentive that could be a catalyst to keep vacationers interested in south Mississippi.