Cato casino deal nears completion

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 31, 2004

NATCHEZ &045;&045; A Florida developer plans to buy the Ramada Hilltop and the Briars bed and breakfast and, pending Gaming Commission approval, locate a 35,000-square-foot dockside casino just south of the Mississippi River bridge.

Charles Cato, president of Emerald Star Casino, plans to submit a site plan for the development at the February meeting of the Gaming Commission &045;&045; the first step needed to gain approval for a casino license.

In addition, Cato said he has an &uot;agreement in principal&uot; to acquire the Ramada and the Briars &045;&045; a document he said was signed Friday morning. He said the deals should be final on or before April 1. Ramada representatives could not be reached for comment Friday , and Bob Canon, co-owner of the Briars, would not comment.

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Cato said that once the Ramada is acquired, he plans to upgrade rooms and the interior of the lobby &045;&045; &uot;basically, do a complete facelift&uot; of the hotel. Any changes to the Briars would be strictly routine maintenance and cosmetic touches, he said.

Previously, Cato had talked with city officials about the possibility of locating a casino at the city-owned Roth Hill property and using three other on-the-hill properties for, among other things, a convention center hotel.

The city’s reaction

City Attorney Walter Brown said that, after weeks of rumors about Cato acquiring the Ramada, city officials found out Friday some agreements had been signed.

For his part, Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith said he welcomes a new business to the city whether or not it’s on city-owned property. &uot;I welcome him as a business and an employer who’s going to create up to 400 jobs,&uot; he said.

&uot;That’s great news. It means he has faith in Natchez and is continuing with plans to do something here. I wish him well, and any way we can assist him in putting his deal together and getting him up and running, we want to do that.&uot;

According to a legal notice to be published in Monday’s Democrat, the casino would contain about 800 slot machines and 30 table games including blackjack, craps, roulette and other table games. It was still unclear as of Friday how soon the casino could open.

What’s next

After site approval, the next step in making the casino a reality would be to gain commission approval for the deal’s financing, the details of which Cato would not divulge Friday.

Cato has some experience with this site before. He said he looked at the site south of the bridge in the mid-1990s as a possible casino location. &uot;But I couldn’t make a deal to get the land along the river,&uot; he said.

Cato wouldn’t divulge specific figures on how much he plans to spend to buy the land, run utilities to the site, develop the casino, acquire the Briars and buy and extensively renovate the Ramada.

He acknowledged &uot;it’s certainly going to be more expensive&uot; to locate at the new site, …several million dollars more. But I would have spent a lot to acquire the access (at Roth Hill), too.&uot;

Cato is also required to submit a site plan to the city’s Planning Commission for its approval.

However, Brown said, &uot;that district (south of the bridge) wouldn’t have the same (historic preservation) restrictions that would apply to the waterfront&uot; at Roth Hill.

Two casinos

How does Cato think the Emerald Star casino will fare in a market that already has one casino, the Isle of Capri?

&uot;It’s been my opinion that the Natchez market, with just one boat, hasn’t been developed fully. It could it be larger (with two casinos),&uot; said Cato, adding that he would like to discuss cooperative marketing with Isle representatives in the future.

City officials said they also believe having two markets will only expand the market and enhance the riverfront.

&uot;I’ve felt all along it would enhance it. I’ve always felt there was room for (the market) to grow. Look at what happened on the Coast &045;&045; (the casinos), overall, have benefited&uot; from competition, Smith said.

Isle General Manager Jose Oakley, said he doesn’t believe the market is big enough for two casinos and that Isle, &uot;an established casino … with quality guest service,&uot; would be the one that survives.

Oakley also expressed surprise that Cato would be willing to sink a large amount of cash into improving a site like the one south of the bridge. &uot;After all, the city spent a lot of money to get Roth Hill prepared,&uot; Oakley said.