City still undecided on casino amendment

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NATCHEZ — After spending four hours in executive session, the Natchez Board of Aldermen took no action at its Tuesday meeting on the proposed third amendment to the city’s lease with Roth Hill casino developers.

Mayor Jake Middleton and the board met in executive session with the city’s outside legal counsel, Scott Andress of Balch & Bingham in Jackson, City Attorney Everett Sanders, City Clerk Donnie Holloway, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ, City Engineer David Gardner, City Planner Bob Nix, Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart and Natchez Fire Marshal Aaron Wesley.

After the executive session, the board opened the floor for questions and comments from several residents and representatives from the city’s existing casino, the Isle of Capri Casino.

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Sanders said the board would take questions under advisement but answer them at a later time in an effort to not compromise the lawsuit regarding a public records request filed against the city by resident Gwen Ball.

Ball presented the aldermen with a petition with the signatures of approximately 200 residents in opposition of the third amendment.

Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. Chief Administrative Officer Donn Mitchell II told the board his company has been quiet for years about the proposed Magnolia Bluffs Casino. Mitchell said his public statement may be misinterpreted as the Isle of Capri’s opposition to competition, but he said that was not the case.

“A couple of meetings ago, the sentiment (that) came out of a meeting appeared to be the attitude that the city was going to be in partnership with our future competition,” he said.

Mitchell said Isle of Capri has several properties it rents from the city and has been given no preferential treatment and was even denied the opportunity to create parking for the casino Under-the-Hill.

“Now the city is paying for (additional) parking spaces for our future competition,” he said.

Mitchell also said that casinos on the riverfront in Natchez and in Vicksburg have two ways in and out of the property, and he said he was concerned that the new casino would have only one way in and out.

“How are we going to get comfortable with and know there is a level playing field going forward?” he said. “What steps is this board taking to be independent, although it has a financial investment in this project?”

Pam Brooks, a 19-year employee of Isle of Capri, said she believed market studies showed Natchez could not support two casinos. She said she and other Isle of Capri employees were concerned about losing their jobs.

“It’s kind of hard to get team members approved by the Mississippi Gaming Commission,” she said. “You would be taking team members (from the Isle of Capri) and have them going to the new casino.”

Renza Grennell, Isle of Capri’s risk and compliance manager, said she wanted to continue to see Isle of Capri benefit both its employees and the city.

Wilson Carroll, an attorney representing Ball and other residents, asked the aldermen if they had seen a market study showing there was enough potential revenue for Natchez to support a second casino.

Carroll also asked the aldermen to inform residents of what was presented to the board in executive session in terms of fire and other safety issues at the proposed casino site.

Mary Jane Gaudet asked the board to conduct research to find out how many casinos in the county, or specifically Mississippi, have 99-year leases.

Resident Dan Bland, whose property is next to the casino site, said there has been a lot of talk about his property being used for emergency vehicle access. Bland, however, said no one representing the casino or the city has talked to him about that possibility.

“The least you could do is sit down and say, ‘Dan, this is what we want to do,’” he said. “I’m concerned that people are talking about using my property, but they have yet to come and talk to me.”

Mayoral candidate Bill Furlow asked if the third amendment would give the city the same authority it has in its current lease with Natchez Gaming Enterprises and the company’s future dealings if Levine Leichtman Capital Partners, one of the casino’s investors, purchases part of Natchez Enterprises.

Furlow also asked the board to contact officials in Greenville, where LLCP recently sold Harlow’s Casino Resort & Hotel, about the officials’ experience with the investment company.

In other news from the meeting:

4The board postponed all other items on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting until its next meeting.

The board will have a special meeting today at 11:30 a.m. in the Natchez City Council Chambers.