City welcomes gaming representatives

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 31, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; The wining and dining were taking place at the convention center &045; but meanwhile, the real show was taking place just a block away, at the bottom of Roth Hill.

Local businesses sponsored a reception late Tuesday afternoon for gaming representatives, their attorneys and Gaming Commission officials in advance of the commission’s meeting.

That meeting is set for 9 a.m. today at the convention center.

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&uot;But one of the reasons we wanted to get you here was to show Natchez off,&uot; Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith told the crowd.

City and economic development officials are marketing 5.3 acres of riverfront property at the foot of Roth Hill, plus the 1.7-acre convention center parking lot site and the old Natchez Pecan Factory building, to prospective developers.

They believe that one day the entire riverfront, from Silver Street to Roth Hill Road, could be taken up with park space, housing and business &045; including, perhaps, another casino.

Other marketing efforts have included a recent trip by city and economic development officials to the Gaming Summit on the Gulf Coast. In that same vein, representatives of the City Engineer’s Office drove vanloads of reception attendees to the site, where they answered questions and gave statistics on what the site had to offer. Their pitch: the 5.3-acre riverfront site comes complete with utilities and beautiful view.

Other city-owned properties, such as the old Natchez Pecan Factory building a lot across from the convention center, are perfect for a hotel or other developments, City Engineer David Gardner said to one touring group.

That’s important because in Mississippi, casinos must invest millions of dollars in land-based developments such as hotels.

With the economy still soft, many industries &045; including the gaming industry &045; are not looking to expand right now, said Andy Bourland, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Association. &uot;But I think (the Natchez site) is worth serious study,&uot; he said.

For one thing, the market is attractive because it currently has only one casino, the Isle of Capri. &uot;Plus, there’s the location, and you have the cooperation of the city officials,&uot; he said.

&uot;It’s a beautiful site in a beautiful setting,&uot; Duncan McKenzie, president of the Grand Casino in Biloxi, said as he turned around to get a 360-degree view of the location.

And is Grand Casino looking to expand to other markets? &uot;Like I said,&uot; McKenzie said, smiling, &uot;I’m just with the Biloxi Grand.&uot;

The mix of people who will attend today’s meeting and who attended Tuesday’s reception &045; gaming attorneys and executives especially &045; are those who most need to hear about Roth Hill, said City Attorney Walter Brown.

That is because they are the ones who know developers who could be interested in making the move to a new market.

&uot;The advantage to doing something like this is that they can see firsthand what could be done here by way of the riverfront development,&uot; Brown said.

The tours also gave the commission firsthand knowledge of the site should any development be in the works, Brown said. City officials also plan to give a brief presentation about the site at today’s meeting.

Commission Chairman Leonard Blackwell said the last time he visited Natchez was the night the Lady Luck Casino &045; now the Isle of Capri &045; opened its doors.

&uot;It’s important for commissioners to see how casinos are affecting different parts of the state after 10 years of gaming,&uot; Blackwell said. Natchez is a good case study, he said, &uot;because our goal is to have gaming, but to have it as a part of overall tourism &045; and Natchez is a good example of that.&uot;