The organization that promotes Mississippi’s biggest tourist destination — the three counties along the Gulf Coast — is on the brink of collapse following a string of leadership resignations, in-fighting over county representation and public name-calling.
Today, Mississippi’s leading casino executives issued a rare joint statement to share their disappointment and fear that the Gulf Coast’s regional approach to tourism marketing is in jeopardy. Driving the internal strife, the casino execs say, is Harrison County, the county many of the state’s most profitable casinos call home.
Every Mississippi coast casino signed a letter published Wednesday morning saying their efforts to reason with Harrison County leadership have been ignored or met with threats to end the current three-county cooperative tourism bureau setup known as Coastal Mississippi.
“As the largest tourism stakeholders along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we have watched with great concern and disappointment the recent turmoil within the Coastal Mississippi Tourism Commission,” the letter, released by the Mississippi Hospitality and Gaming Association, begins.
That turmoil largely came to a head a few weeks ago when Coastal Mississippi’s CEO Milton Segarra abruptly announced his resignation effective Oct. 15. His decision to leave came following public criticisms that his $225,000 annual salary was too high. Three other commissioners on the board that manages the Gulf Coast tourism bureau have also resigned since September.
Coastal Mississippi, first known as the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, was created by the state Legislature in 2013 to lead the region’s marketing efforts and ultimately attract more visitors to the state.
The tourism bureau that led to the creation of Coastal Mississippi started out of a tourism board that solely represented Harrison County. When the state Legislature passed the new structure for the three counties to combine their resources, however, it still favored the power toward Harrison County.
The commission that advises and controls Coastal Mississippi is made up of 15 members: nine from Harrison County, three from Hancock and three from Jackson. That means any decision the body needs to vote on has an automatic Harrison majority. Each of the three county’s boards of supervisors appoint its representatives.
Coastal Mississippi’s efforts are funded by a 2-3% tax on hotel stays across Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties. In a budget report to Harrison County, Coastal Mississippi said it had about $5.2 million in its budget from the taxes. It’s been a banner year for the bureau, with hotels posting higher than normal occupancy rates.
The bulk of that tax revenue, about 80% of Coastal Mississippi’s funding, comes from Harrison County’s casino resorts and hotels.
“We cannot and will not remain silent in the face of threats to destroy the regional
efforts and partnerships we’ve worked diligently to develop in recent years,” the casino heads wrote on Wednesday.
The Gulf Coast’s tourism success has statewide implications. The casinos say they spend more than $400 million annually in wages and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in total state and local tax revenue between gaming and sales tax revenue. A third of the state’s overall hospitality and tourism-related jobs are on the Coast.
Part of that success, they say, is because of the regional three-county marketing model.
To that end, the bureau under Segarra was successful: While other destinations struggled through the pandemic, the Gulf Coast had a surge of visitors. In the last year, casinos broke gaming revenue records with some of their best financial months on record.
As a regional commission, Coastal Mississippi was able to get $3.4 million in federal funding to help with pandemic recovery. Yet, those successes haven’t prevented in-fighting between the three counties meant to work together to market and maximize the Coast counties as a unified destination.
Earlier this week, members of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors spoke candidly with one another during a public meeting about the prospect of leaving behind the three-county setup.
Harrison County Supervisor Rebecca Powers called one of the recent Coastal Mississippi board members who resigned “a dumb-dumb.” Powers was referring to Mark Henderson, the owner of Lazy Magnolia Brewery in Kiln who relies on tourists to support his business. Henderson has been vocal about the board’s dysfunction and lack of regional focus even before leaving last month.
“Oh, sorry, are we back?” Powers said following the remark, during the recorded meeting, seemingly forgetting the board was out of executive session. “Whoops.”
Harrison County Supervisor Marlin Ladner said if others continued to “keep the heat on,” that one day the Harrison County supervisors would “make a motion to get out of” the three-county agreement and “do our own business.”
Harrison County Supervisor Kent Jones chimed in: “We step back and let them keep punching, keep punching, and we come out and say we are just going back to being just Harrison County.”
Lander agreed. “Go ahead and keep doing it and you’re going to lose what you’ve got,” meaning the regional tourism concept.
A Mississippi Today review of the Coastal Mississippi board minutes since the start of this year showed cracks in the organization appearing by March. The review showed it wasn’t unusual for contentious items to be passed by a Harrison County voting bloc with the six non-Harrison members opposed.
In March, the Harrison County members passed a change in bylaws that allowed a Harrison representative to serve as the commission’s president three out of five years. Previously, the role of president cycled through each county equally.
When a Hancock County representative was promoted from vice president to president after a resignation, the Harrison bloc immediately voted him out of the role.
By the summer, strife between Segarra — who came to Mississippi after serving as the head of Meet Puerto Rico — and the board was becoming apparent.
In June, the board voted 10-3 it would take no further action on a complaint Segarra filed, according to meeting minutes. The CEO’s complaint was against an unnamed commissioner who he said made a remark. The content of the comment wasn’t made public, and the board said it had determined there was insufficient evidence to move forward and act on the complaint. The board did, however, agree to review its diversity and inclusion policy.
The board also agreed to pay $5,000 to an outside meditator to come in and help ease tensions.
Yet the hostility and friction among members has continued.
While the legislation that created the board recommends the representatives be those knowledgeable of the tourism industry, it is not required. No casino leaders are on the current board and only one member is a hotelier.
One representative from the Beau Rivage served as the board’s president earlier this year. She resigned suddenly in May. The Beau’s CEO, Travis Lunn, is the fourth signature on the casino executive letter.
The casino executives, 11 in total, say they’re calling on the three counties’ elected officials to partner with businesses and “identify a path forward.” The casino leaders also say they will continue to examine and discuss the agency’s structure and governance.
“We unequivocally support the efforts of Coastal Mississippi’s business community to ensure tourism-dependent businesses have a voice in local tourism decisions, and we stand ready to work with all regional business and elected leaders who have an interest in finding long-term solutions to ensure continued regional collaboration and success in our destination marketing efforts,” the letter ends.