Trump Casino Plan Stirs Concern in Mississippi
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Across southern Mississippi there's a race to build new casinos. If they're completed by 2008, the federal government will pitch in millions of dollars in hurricane tax breaks for businesses and hotels. Among those planning to take advantage of the federal incentives: Donald Trump. And of course he plans to build the largest, most lavish casino in the area, and it's promising to change quiet coastal areas like Hancock County.
NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN: Werlin Ladner has waited 12 years to build a casino. As he stands on the edge of 404 acres of Mississippi marsh, he doesn't see the pieces of boats and homes still strewn across the property. He sees a goldmine.
Mr. WERLIN LADNER (Diamondhead Casino Corporation): Casino, high-rise condominiums, probably low-cost condominiums. I mean, you can just put a bunch on it, you know? You can build them then 10 stories high, and thousands, I would imagine, you know?
SULLIVAN: Ladner is the local representative of the Diamondhead Casino Corporation. Three months ago Trump Entertainment Resorts announced it plans to partner with Diamondhead to build a massive casino and hotel. Ladner and the group can't use the tax breaks to build the actual casino floor, but they can use them on the hotel, condos and resort around it.
Mr. LADNER: Donald Trump will be helping people that's in trouble. You know, we need money, we need the income. I mean, all the business is just tore up.
SULLIVAN: Before Katrina, Mississippi kept its casinos small and offshore, on water barges far off the interstate. After the storm destroyed all those tax-generating boats, state lawmakers changed their minds and casinos were allowed to rebuild on land. Congress then followed with a law offering tax breaks on hotel construction and housing complexes. Together, the incentives promise to transform this sleepy backwater into what some say will be the Atlantic City of the South.
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SULLIVAN: The Hollywood Casino is one of four that are already planned so far for Hancock County. On the edge of Bay Saint Louis it's glitzy and expansive. It's already drawing people from nearby states, like Una Marshall(ph) from Baton Rouge.
Ms. UNA MARSHALL (Baton Rouge Resident): I love it. I've been to Vegas several times, but I'd rather come here to the coast. People are friendly. I love the casino.
Reverend CARL MEYERS(ph) (Southern Baptist Minister): For the love of money is root of all kinds of evil: 1st Timothy, Chapter 6, Verse 6.
SULLIVAN: Carl Meyers is a Southern Baptist minister and director of missions for a consortium of 18,000 worshipers in Mississippi. Meyers says Trump, Hancock County and Bay Saint Louis will only be profiting off the backs of poor residents.
Mr. MEYERS: In the end I see it as the battle of good and evil. It's almost like once you open the valve or there's a crack in the dam, how do you stop the flow? The plague's here, by my thoughts.
SULLIVAN: But what officials in Hancock County and Bay Saint Louis are thinking is that their money woes are about to be over. More than half of Bay Saint Louis's tax revenue right now comes just from the new Hollywood casino. A casino like Trump's would be a virtual bonanza. But that kind of money has drawn some competition.
Mr. DONALD KRAEMER (President, Diamondhead Country Club and Property Owners Association): We can pick up about three million dollars in just gaming tax.
SULLIVAN: Don Kraemer is president of the Diamondhead Country Club and Property Owners Association. It sits right next to Trump's proposed casino. Now these residents say they intend to incorporate as their own city, which means almost all the local tax money will go to them.
Mr. KRAEMER: If the casinos do come in, we need to latch onto that income. We're the largest residential community in Hancock County. And they should be happy to keep us happy.
SULLIVAN: If the neighborhood is successful, local officials here in Mississippi worry the community association and the casino developers could wind up being the only real winners.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
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