ourists headed through Alabama to the Gulf can now stop at top-line restaurants opened by country singers John Anderson and Lorrie Morgan, catch big-name entertainers like Hank Williams Jr. and Reba McEntire, and gamble in pricey new digs that look like they belong in Las Vegas rather than rural, Bible-belt Alabama. "We are not a pass-through corridor any more," developer Ronnie Gilley said.
Alabama's casinos don't have slot machines and table games like the casinos in Mississippi. Instead, they are filled with electronic bingo machines, which resemble slot machines with their flashing lights and quick play. The experience can be much the same as slots.
Gambling expert Bill Eadington of the University of Nevada at Reno said Alabama's new attractions have a lot of potential because they are located on major travel routes, and their opening is likely to be felt next door in Mississippi, with its Gulf Coast casino row. "The more supply you have, the more difficulty you have capturing customers," Eadington said.
The Alabama developers' multimillion-dollar gamble is not just about pulling customers away from Mississippi. Courts in the state are hearing lawsuits challenging the legality of electronic bingo in some counties and Eadington, director of UNR's Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, said some counties are on shaky legal ground.
But that hasn't stopped the growth in Alabama.
Milton McGregor cut the ribbon December 9 on a 300-room luxury hotel at this Victoryland complex in Shorter, about 32 kilometres east of Montgomery on Interstate 85. His Oasis hotel will be followed in the new year by a 1,500-seat entertainment centre and convention complex. The hotel and its additions are a us$ 100 million investment in a gambling complex that started with a dog track 25 years ago.
Victoryland opened a modern casino in 2005 and kept expanding until it now houses 6,400 electronic bingo machines - more than any single casino in Nevada, New Jersey or Mississippi has slots, according to Casino City's North American Gaming Almanac.
McGregor said he built the hotel - and has two more in the planning stages - because visitors demanded Victoryland be more than a stopover for a few hours. "In order to be where we needed to be and wanted to be, we had to become a destination point," McGregor said.
So far, it's paying off, he said, with 40 % of the weekend business coming from out of state. That compares to about 70 per cent for Mississippi casinos. Country Crossing in the southeast corner of the state opened its us$ 87 million first phase on December 1, with more new attractions in the new year pushing the total investment over us$ 200 million.
A country music-themed complex south of Dothan looks very different from Victoryland.
Country Crossing uses an architectural style that blends TV's "Mayberry" and "Petticoat Junction" into a made-from-scratch small town. This hamlet just happens to offer restaurants named for country singers, an inn called George Jones' Possum Holler, a concert amphitheatre, an RV park, and electronic bingo machines.
For now, Gilley, the developer, is hoping to get tourists to stop briefly on their way to and from the beach on U.S. 231. He's expecting that to start changing when he opens two hotels, a water park, a bowling alley and family entertainment centre next year. "We expect in the next five years we will become a destination and the beach will become a day trip," he said.
Alabama's Poarch Band of Creek Indians opened the us$ 245 million Wind Creek complex at Atmore in January. In addition to electronic bingo, it features a 236-room upscale hotel, four restaurants, an amphitheatre with major headliners, and a cooking studio directed by award-winning chef Stafford DeCambra, who previously worked at a Mississippi casino.
Wind Creek sits along Interstate 65, a major route to Gulf Coast beaches and Mississippi's coastal casinos, and its 17-storey hotel has become a landmark towering above the rural area's vast stretches of pine forests. "From the beginning, we were intent on providing patrons with an experience incomparable to anything else offered in the region," Jay Dorris, president of Poarch Creek Indian Gaming, said at the opening.
So far, Alabama casinos are drawing primarily from Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, Larry Gregory, said Alabama's new attractions "have had very little impact on our market over here."
Gregory said Mississippi offers clusters of casinos, with multiple entertainers and amenities to choose from - an aggregate convenience Alabama doesn't have. That doesn't bother Mae Childers and Ina Lay, two Alabama widows who were playing recently at Victoryland. They said they used to travel out of state to gamble, but now spend their money in Alabama.