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Best of Rudi Schiffer

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"Absolutely" says Hunter on new Sportsman Casino

4 May 2010

Over the years since the Tunica casino complex became entrenched, many wannabe hopefuls have visited and dreamed of their casino sprouting up in the surrounding cotton fields and providing an endless flow of cash for their coffers. The problem was that the cash to open their glitter palaces was not in place and never would be as they sought to build their dreams with other people's money.

Now comes along some Southern gentlemen who say they are going to build a casino and do it right. But the question still persists; show me the money. Long time observers here say it's a another pie in the sky feeler. But there was enough smoke emitting from this fire that called for some critical reporting to see if this latest venture was real or just a developer running around the county with architectural renderings for effect.

I caught up with Kevin Hunter, who in earlier times might have been an aide-de-camp for General Robert E. Lee. He would have filled that role easily with his smooth Southern manners, an erect and correct posture, and an easy friendly manner of talking that made you a believer from the beginning. During a two-hour conversation on the patio of Tunica National Golf Club, he led me through the process, how and why the development would work, who would make it work and what it do for the County.

But, as he drew my into his dream, I suddenly remembered I was supposed to uncovering something here, finding out for our readers if this group was real, did it have the money or was it just ego-driven posturing? I asked the burning question:

"Can you get the deal done?"

"Absolutely" was his firm, unequivocal reply. I asked him again, giving him the opportunity to back off this stance. "Can I quote you on that? Again the same unflinching retort: "Absolutely."

Since Hunter, a Mississippi native and graduate of the University of Mississippi, was now tied to that position, the next question was how would he and his partners make this work if the money was not a burning issue.

"We have local roots in the region, for one thing, " said Hunter. "And we agreed it was not good for an empty building to be sitting on "Main Street" of this casino town. A replacement was needed to help bring excitement and revitalization to the jurisdiction.

"Our key investors are from this area so there is more devotion to making this project work and work right from the beginning. They are really solid people and friends who are doing this for the right reasons.

"We also addressed the timing of this project since the adverse economic conditions seemed against a development of this magnitude. But ultimately we agreed this was the best of times and with the economy on a mild upswing, our timing would appear to be on target."

"So why the name, Sportsman Casino & Lodge?" Mr. Hunter.

"The genesis of this particular name arises from the Delta region we live in that is big on outdoor pursuits such as hunting, fishing, boating, sporting clays and the like and we feel it is a position that will fit into the casino landscape because it is a name that is memorable, unique."

The proposed casino, which has Mississippi Gaming Commission approval for the former Isle of Capri casino site adjacent to Sam's Town in Casino Strip that includes Hollywood and Resorts, is expected to ground break around September with a target date for completion in late 2011. It won't be an MGM Grand but an investment around $80 million, a modest endeavor with 1,300 slot machines, some 30-40 table games, several restaurants and 220 new rooms. The gaming floor will be about 50,000 square feet.

While the name of the casino and the theme is still not final, the working name seems like a good one if selected. We didn't get a peek at any renderings but the project has moved beyond that stage with the retention of well-known Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects of Memphis for the design.

Another critical and key element came with the early decision to retain one of the most well-respected names in the industry, Lakes Entertainment of Minnetonka, Minn. and its CEO, Lyle Berman, who built and operated the Grand Casino, where Harrah's now sits on the northern border of the county.

"Lyle was a key decision for us, " Hunter. "He knows this business and I regard him as a renaissance man in the industry. He has our respect and very importantly, the respect of the national gaming industry. Lyle also has local experience… he knows the market…he is the all-important X factor."

Lakes also has various management, financing and development agreements with five other casinos in three states and will supervise the hiring of some 400-500 employees.

With Berman, Hunter said the people involved in the project present a solid front and working as a well-financed team are now hitting all the benchmarks which up the odds of making Sportsman a reasonably leveraged operation that will do well in the Tunica market.

The team Hunter talks about, besides Berman, include Abston-Mckay Ventures (AMV) of Oxford, Ms, where it is headquartered, and Orr Family Properties, a Tunica-based LLC represented by a well known attorney in these parts, Bobby Leatherman, Jr. who has worked on a number of casino related projects in Tunica over the last several years.

"Similar project usually start with pretty drawings and grandiose ideas that don't really have a plan for raising money, " said Leatherman. "I knew at our first meeting they set up with Orr Family Enterprises that they were serious because they introduced investment banker Bruce Raben as part of their team. Subsequent efforts was to firm up the investment team and a hire Lyle Berman. This is how successful deals like this get put together."

Hunter is an experienced business principal with extensive entrepreneurial experience in a wide variety of industries such as automotive dealerships, telecommunications, media and professional sports. He is remembered in Memphis as franchise owner of the Memphis Pharaohs of the Arena Football League. A native of Tupelo, he was named by the Mississippi Business Journal to its original list of the Top 40 business individuals under 40. He is now 46.

Norfleet Abston of Memphis is chief financial officer of Old Waverly Investments and later was founding principal and chief financial officer of Sovereign Wealth Management, Inc. A 1983 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where he earned a degree in economics, he obtained his Master's of Business Education at Vanderbilt. He currently serves on the board of Trustees for Carnival Memphis, the Memphis Zoo (2006) and Boy Scouts of America, Chickasaw Council.

Last but not least is the very important contribution of Bruce Raben of Los Angeles who brings all the experience in the world to the group. He has been an investment banker, merchant banker and private investor for over 25 years and is a founding partner of Hudson Capital Advisors, LLC. At Drexel Burnham Lambert he worked on many leveraged buyouts and recapitalizations for such companies as Mattel Toys, Warnaco, Mellon Bank and John Fairfax. Raben received his A.B. from Vassar College and his MBA from Columbia.

"With this outstanding team, we feel we are well-positioned, well financed, entrepreneurial-led and will do well in this competitive market where our presence will add to the attraction of Tunica gaming, absolutely," said Hunter.
Rudi Schiffer

Rudi Schiffer is a long time columnist and contributing writer for Jackpot Magazine, the South’s leading gaming publication, and for casinocitytimes.com, the world’s leading casino industry internet news distributor. He is also owner and co-host of the 20-year-old Goodtimes Radio Show, now simulcast on Fridays from 3-6 PM Central Time from Country Classic 1180 AM, Memphis networked with KMIS 1050 AM, and 103.9 KGLU FM from Kennet, MO covering parts of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. His radio show is also archived at audiovegas.com. A Boston University Journalism graduate, he resides in Memphis, TN. Known as the "Voice of Tunica" for his support the gaming jurisdiction for two decades, he was also recently named to Memphis Business Quarterly Magazine’s 3rd annual “The Power Players, Who’s Who” of Memphis.He is also a contributing writer for Southern Gaming & Entertainment and Mississippi Gaming.

Rudi Schiffer Websites:

www.AudioVegas.com
Rudi Schiffer
Rudi Schiffer is a long time columnist and contributing writer for Jackpot Magazine, the South’s leading gaming publication, and for casinocitytimes.com, the world’s leading casino industry internet news distributor. He is also owner and co-host of the 20-year-old Goodtimes Radio Show, now simulcast on Fridays from 3-6 PM Central Time from Country Classic 1180 AM, Memphis networked with KMIS 1050 AM, and 103.9 KGLU FM from Kennet, MO covering parts of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. His radio show is also archived at audiovegas.com. A Boston University Journalism graduate, he resides in Memphis, TN. Known as the "Voice of Tunica" for his support the gaming jurisdiction for two decades, he was also recently named to Memphis Business Quarterly Magazine’s 3rd annual “The Power Players, Who’s Who” of Memphis.He is also a contributing writer for Southern Gaming & Entertainment and Mississippi Gaming.

Rudi Schiffer Websites:

www.AudioVegas.com