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Expert: Two casinos must work together

LAUREN WOOD/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — When Magnolia Bluffs Casino opened Tuesday, it joined the Isle of Capri Casino and Natchez became a two-casino town.

NATCHEZ — Natchez’s riverfront has a long history of being a place where gambling and fighting went hand in hand.

Such history underscores the near certainty in the minds of many locals that two competing casinos — one a long fixture, the other the hot-shot new kid on the block — would be on track to duke it out soon.

Many local businesspeople won’t say so publicly, but privately most say Tuesday’s opening of Magnolia Bluffs Casino will greatly impact the existing Isle of Capri Casino, and most think a battle is looming.

“I’ve said all along that I think the two of them will do well for the first six months or a year,” Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said last week. “Then we’ll see what remains in terms of what they eat into the Isle of Capri’s business or what they bring in new.”

Brown’s comments — and others who think like him, but don’t want to say it publicly — make sense in way, both historically and practically.

Both casinos are within sight of the location where Jim Bowie’s famous sandbar fight was believed to have occurred in 1827.

But is a competitive fight to the death inevitable for the businesses?

Perhaps, but only if the local casino market is the sole target for business, a former University of Southern Mississippi professor, researcher and author said this week.

“Those two casinos actually have to work together,” said Dr. Denise Runge, now provost of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. “If I were advising the CEOs of these companies, I’d say, ‘You guys need to do some joint marketing.’”

Runge isn’t just an academic who “thinks” she knows about Mississippi casinos. She led extensive research projects on Mississippi casinos several years ago and edited a book on the subject, “Resorting to Casinos: The Mississippi Gambling Industry,” University Press of Mississippi, 2006, under her pre-marriage last name, von Herrmann.

Runge says rather than fighting over the local pie and effectively offering no growth to the local economy, the two casinos could benefit by cooperating.

“You need to pick the most likely markets in Louisiana and Arkansas and do some joint marketing there,” she said, adding that much of her research across Mississippi’s gaming industry was looking at whether or not the industry created a positive economic impact on the state.

“If it primarily attracts Mississippians and locals, it’s not going to have a positive impact on Mississippi.”

Runge compared building a new casino to draw from the same pool of gamblers much like building a new movie theater or restaurant.

“We don’t expect building a new movie theater to create economic growth in the community,” she said. “It’s entertainment and it’s fun, but you need to attract non-Mississippians.”

The key to true economic growth from gaming, Runge said, is through getting out-of-town gamblers to come to town and do other things beyond just gambling.

“Particularly if they will stay longer than two days,” she said. “Over two days, they’re doing more than gambling. They’re fueling up their cars with gasoline, they’re doing other things that have economic impact in the community.”

A prime example of this, she said, is the event Cruisin‘ the Coast on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“The casinos are heavily involved in Cruisin‘ the Coast because these folks are going to stay there and some will go and gamble,” she said.

“While Natchez is a tourism site, its location is less convenient for travel to Natchez by non-Mississippi residents,” she said. “They have to increase the attractiveness of the locale.

“The Natchez CVB could easily facilitate that kind of marketing effort.”

Regardless of whether or not the two casinos view one another as potential partners or mortal enemies, a few things are likely to change either way.

“The introduction of the new one will almost assuredly cause renovation and expansion of the other one,” Runge said.

Also, just having two options rather than one may help attract more out-of-area gamblers to town, former Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton said.

“When you have a choice, it’s better,” he said. “Most people want to go somewhere where they have a choice, an option.”