A Biloxi casino resort that’s been pitched four times over the past 15 years has finally gained site approval from the Mississippi Gaming Commission (MGC).
The southeast corner at Beach Blvd. and Veterans Ave. has been approved for casino gaming in Biloxi. The Mississippi Gaming Commission issued its support this week for casino gambling on the property. (Image: Google)
State gaming regulators last Thursday lent their blessing to RW Development and local businessman Ray Woolridge, despite strong opposition from the city’s current casinos. The MGC issued site approval for a casino on RW Development property at Veterans Avenue at Beach Boulevard (US Highway 90).
Commissioners provided the site endorsement on several conditions. The approval is for three years, meaning RW Development will need to secure financing and have its design finished and approved during that time frame. The site approval cannot be transferred to another company without subsequent MGC approval.
RW Development must also construct a handicap-accessible pier, a project expected to cost over $3 million, and maintain the structure. As for the casino, the gaming space must stay within 800 feet of the mean high-water line, as required by state gaming law.
Pier Lease Turns Tide
Woolridge wants to replace his Big Play Entertainment Center with a casino resort. But over the years, he’s faced a myriad of legal challenges and opposition to the project.
Woolridge’s application was first denied in July 2008. That was because the MGC concluded that his property failed to meet the governing statutory and regulatory requirements that mandate Gulf Coast casinos to stay within 800 feet of the mean high-water line. Woolridge unsuccessfully appealed the matter, but courts agreed that the 800 feet begins from where the mean high water meets the shore — not the toe of the seawall.
Woolridge applied again in early 2017 after a new MGC was installed. The project was again denied, and an appeal was again upheld. He submitted a new plan in June 2017, but the site was for a third time rejected.
RW Development sought approval for a fourth time at the beginning of this year after agreeing to build a public pier on the city’s behalf through a lease agreement.
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch sued Biloxi on allegations that it had no authority to contract the project to RW Development because it didn’t hold a tidelands lease for the property. Mississippi owns the state’s tidelands, which are lands that are covered and uncovered daily by water as a result of tides.
The state’s highest court in March of this year ruled against Fitch and said Biloxi possessed the authority to build the pier. That ruling was critical for Woolridge, as it provided him with control of the land on the southeast corner of Beach Blvd. With the tract nearer to the mean high-water line, the MGC signed off on approving the site for gaming.
Reps from some of Biloxi’s eight current casinos expressed their opposition to the site being approved for gaming. Michael Bruffey, deputy director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Gaming Association, which represents Gulf Coast casinos, opined in a letter to gaming commissioners that the property still doesn’t meet state qualifications for gaming.
Bruffey cited the City of Biloxi’s lease agreement with RW Development that prohibits gaming from occurring on the actual pier.
“The language in the lease itself clearly states that the lessee shall be entitled to the non-exclusive use and possession of the premises, and the lessee shall use the premises for the use of non-gaming,” said Bruffey.
The MGC disagreed with his argument.
“It appears that they don’t want additional competition,” Woolridge told the Biloxi Sun Herald.
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