Sunday, January 14, 2007

Casino in Old Town

Developers plan Old Town Casino
By GEOFF BELCHER
Jan 12, 2007, 17:18

Bay St. Louis developer Hester Plauché and Marrero, La.-based contractor Pete Vicari plan to go before the Bay City Council Tuesday night to unveil plans for an ambitious $100 million "boutique" casino, hotel, restaurant and retail project they say will reinvigorate the hurricane-ravaged Old Town area, restore its long-lost historic charm and – most importantly – bring back the downtown merchants deprived of their livelihoods by Katrina.
"You won't see the glitz and glamour, no neon," Plauché said Thursday. "You will see the original architecture of Old Town."

Designer Al Fiori’s concept for the Old Town Casino, shops and renovated A&G Theater in downtown Bay St. Louis at Main St. and Beach Blvd. The project, planned by local developer Hester Plauché and Marrero contractor Pete Vicari, is scheduled to go before the Bay St. Louis City Council on Tuesday evening.
The project encompasses three full blocks of the Bay's beachfront, from State St. to the railroad tracks, and includes 40,000 square feet of gaming space – comparable to Hollywood Casino – wrapped inside quaint, old-style retail shops, art galleries and restaurants. The pair also want to build a parking garage on Court St., between the beach and the Hancock County Justice Facility, which would also act as a buffer between the railroad and the adjacent shopping areas. Plans also include a 400-room hotel similar to the old Pickwick Hotel, which burned to the ground circa 1917. Everything, Vicari said, will be based on the town's original architecture, with nothing over four stories – and completely in the spirit of plans produced during the Governor's Commission's "charrette" process.
Vicari is an award-winning New Orleans-area contractor, specializing in historic restoration and preservation projects, such as the work done at the old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter. He was also recently featured on the ABC Television program "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
"In planning the Old Town project, "Pete spent a lot of time at the (Hancock) Historical Society, looking at pictures" from before the turn of the 20th century, Plauché said."
Every time there was a hurricane, when they built it back, something changed. We want to take it back to what it was, " Vicari said. "A lot of what was there (prior to Hurricane Katrina) really wasn't that architecturally pretty. I'm trying to step it up a notch."
"When we do this, we don't want high-rises," Plauché said. "This needs to be a place of assembly for the people."
The gaming facility will be necessary in order to draw enough revenue to rebuild Old Town's lost charm without forcing rent and real estate prices too high to attract merchants and restaurants. In effect, a casino would subsidize the properties, making their prices reasonable and affordable for small business.
"When we say a boutique casino, we're talking about something in between what's done in the classier (American) casinos and a European casino," Plauché said.The casino itself wouldn't have a gift shop or restaurant, leaving that open to downtown merchants. All the shops would face the street, Plauché said, with the casino tucked subtly in the center. It would be an upscale facility, filled with work by local artists.
"There are people away from here that the only thing they know Bay St. Louis to be is Second Saturday and the little shops," Vicari said ... . "This facility is going to be heavily influenced by local artists."
"We're losing our artists," Plauché said. "We're losing crafts people, and when you start losing 'em, it's hard to get 'em back. If this doesn't happen as quick as it can, what's going to happen to the rest of Bay St. Louis?"
The plan also calls for the renovation of the old A&G theatre building, which would be restored, rather than torn down, and offered for use by the Bay St. Louis Little Theatre and school and arts productions. The Hancock Bank building would remain in its current location.The beach front would remain open for public access. Hopefully, Plauché said, later on, the city could build an amphitheater for outdoor festivals and events.
If the city council greenlights the project, Plauché said, "We won't have to worry about a condo popping up on the beach or somebody building a shack. ... This will be something the people of Bay St. Louis can be proud of."
"Our slogan's going to be 'Come on home,'" Vicari said.Plauché said the financing, plans, construction crew and management team are already in place, all under the auspices of his and Vicari's holding company, PV Acquisitions. The two men have already talked to most of the neighbors and about 95 percent of the property owners who would be involved. Most of the work could be done in a year's time, from start to finish, Vicari said.The area is already zoned C-2 commercial. The only obstacle at this point, Plauché said, is whether the Bay St. Louis City Council will endorse the project, allowing a variance of the town's 25-acre casino district requirement.
"Old Town is what brought people here (before Katrina)," Plauché said. We thought if we could bring Old Town back, it would have a lot of positive effect on the community."

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