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Lingering concerns: Brown questions casino’s non-gaming contributions

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Premier Gaming Group President Kevin Preston, center, starts a tour of the Magnolia Bluffs Casino in what will be the gaming floor with city officials and casino employees Wednesday afternoon.

NATCHEZ — With the scheduled opening of Magnolia Bluffs Casino just two months away, Mayor Butch Brown said there are a couple of aspects of the casino development with which he is concerned.

First, Brown said he is skeptical that Magnolia Bluffs Casino has fulfilled its non-gaming contributions to the City of Natchez.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission requires that all casino developments spend an amount of money equal to what they spend on the gaming facility on “infrastructure facilities.” Plans for these facilities — which must amount to 100 percent of the construction cost of the casino — must be provided to receive gaming commission approval.

The gaming commission approved those plans in October 2011 when the casino received approval to proceed with development.

In addition to restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment space, the casino is counting other non-gaming casino space toward the requirement.

But Brown said he does not understand how on-site restaurants and entertainment space that will likely be used by casino patrons more than the public meets the gaming commission requirements.

“I don’t think they have met their requirements for land-based (non-gaming) space,” he said. “I don’t see any

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Mayor Butch Brown, left, talks to Premier Gaming Group President Kevin Preston during a tour of the Magnolia Bluffs Casino.

land-based infrastructure.”

MGC Executive Director Allen Godfrey confirmed that the gaming commission approved the on-site restaurants, bars and entertainment space as the casino’s non-gaming infrastructure.

“Nothing has changed from the day this project was approved to today,” Godfrey said. “From our standpoint, they’ve met our regulations. Now if the mayor chooses not to give them a certificate of occupancy, then there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Premier Gaming Group President Kevin Preston, whose company is building the casino, said Magnolia Bluffs Casino is not reinventing the wheel by meeting gaming commission requirements with on-site facilities. Preston and the casino’s attorney Chris Pace said the Margaritaville and Silver Slipper casinos in Biloxi met requirements with similar facilities.

Casino developers are also providing a $300,000 contribution for a public park and a $300,000 contribution for the Natchez Trails Project as part of the provisions of developers’ lease with the city. The plans are now on hold since the grant for the park was recently denied by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The casino will also provide as part of its lease agreement an annual payment of $225,000 to a community development fund beginning one year after the casino opens. Additionally, the lease states the casino is to provide A $1 million contribution for a YMCA, recreation center or Civil Rights museum to be paid over a three-year period beginning one year after the casino opens. Developers will also pay 5-percent interest on the last two payments that total $666,666, bringing the total contribution to $1,050,000.

Those contributions are, however, part of the city’s lease and do not count as the casino’s non-gaming infrastructure required by the gaming commission.

Preston said percentage-wise, the lease is “much more favorable” to the city.

“And we went above and beyond with providing laptops for (Natchez police) patrol cars,” he said.

Brown confirmed the casino provided the laptops and mounting hardware for the police cars.

“But not the servers and things that make the computers work,” he said.

Preston said he is frustrated that Brown is bringing up issues that Preston said he believes have already been resolved.

“In one breath (Brown is) bringing up these issues that we went through on multiple occasions, and in the same breath he calls (our) office and asks us if we would interview friends of his for jobs,” Preston said in an e-mail.

Brown said the instance to which Preston is referring relates to Brown being contacted by someone who recently moved to Natchez and was looking for a job.

Brown said that the casino’s job fair had passed, so he asked if it would be possible for the person to get an interview.

“Since that time I have been told that the guy never went and the interview never happened,” he said.

Brown also said he was concerned with the length of the 99-year lease the city signed with casino developers.

But Preston said that is not an issue because the lease is actually a 49-year lease with an option to go to 99 years.

Brown said he has asked the gaming commission to share with the city the list of expenditures the casino has and will make on non-gaming infrastructure when it receives the list from developers.

Brown also hopes to get some answers from the gaming commission about secondary emergency vehicle access to the casino site, an issue that has yet to be resolved.

The lone fire access was approved by former fire chief Paul K. Johnson in 2007 during the initial stages of the casino project.

Brown said that approval was given before any major work was done at the casino site.

“I think it was more hypothetical than actual,” he said. “There was never any site plan when the fire access approval was given, all that came after the fact.”

Even if there were no private land ownership challenges with providing secondary access, Brown said a fire truck would still have to leave the pavement to access the casino.

“A loaded fire truck leaving hard pavement and dealing with mud and going a route where it can’t access the casino quickly, that would be a challenge,” he said.

Roth Hill Road, Brown said, does not provide adequate emergency access because emergency vehicles would be impeded by people trying to escape the site.

“There is no alternative for secondary access, in my opinion,” he said. “We, the city and the fire department, are wrestling with how to provide fire protection going down Roth Hill Road.”

Preston said his company is building the casino and constructing access as it was designed and then approved by the city.

“Right now we’re building this thing as it’s been designed with more than enough adequate fire protection,” he said.

Brown said he only wants to ensure the safety of casino patrons and firefighters and see that the city receives every penny its due in non-gaming infrastructure required by the gaming commission.

“I don’t have a shopping list of things I want from the casino,” Brown said. “I only want to make sure we get what is required by state law that must be met on land-based infrastructure.”

Brown hopes to get some sort of clarification on what exactly the casino’s non-gaming contributions to the city will be next month when the city hosts the gaming commission’s monthly meeting.

“We will most certainly be on the agenda,” he said.