Mississippi Operations Helped Ameristar - Monday 6th of February 2006

LAS VEGAS Ameristar Casinos showed investors Wednesday how it benefited by operating in hurricane-ravaged Mississippi.

Fueled by revenue from coastal Mississippi casino customers displaced when their normal hangouts were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Ameristar's Vicksburg casino reported record income, revenue and cash flow in the fourth quarter that ended Dec. 31.

The results sent Las Vegas-based Ameristar to its most prosperous year ever.

"We continued to improve upon the financial successes of prior years by further increasing revenues, profitability and cash flows," Ameristar Chairman Craig Neilsen said. "We believe our growth is largely the result of the successful application of our core operating strategies, all of which are intended to maximize our competitive advantages in all our markets."

During the quarter, Ameristar reported net revenue of $243.8 million, an increase of 13.6 percent from $214.7 million in the same quarter the prior year. For all of 2005, Ameristar had net revenue of $961.4 million, a 12.5 percent increase from $854.7 million in 2004.

Ameristar said the company's earnings per share was 25 cents in the fourth quarter and $1.16 for 2005. Analysts polled by Thomson First Call expected the company to earn 26 cents a share in the quarter and $1.17 for the year. In a statement, the company blamed the early retirement of a senior secured credit facility during the quarter, which cost Ameristar 2 cents per share.

"It's pretty much steady as she goes for Ameristar," said gaming analyst Steve Ruggiero of CRT Capital Group in Stamford, Conn. "They had a very solid quarter."

In Vicksburg, about 200 miles northwest of the hurricane-damaged communities of Gulfport, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Ameristar's riverboat casino reported a fourth-quarter increase of 45 percent in revenue and a 77.5 percent jump in cash flow, defined as earnings before interest taxes, depreciation and amortization.

For the year, Ameristar Vicksburg, which has 150 hotel rooms and a 42,000-square-foot casino, had net revenue of $126.1 million, a 17.4 percent increase from $107.4 million in 2004, and cash flow of $50.7 million, a 30.3 percent increase from $38.9 million in 2004.

Ameristar Chief Financial Officer Tom Steinbauer said the results were primarily attributed to an increase in business volume following the closure of 13 casinos in coastal Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit the area Aug. 29.

Even though three casinos have since reopened, Steinbauer said he expects the trends to continue throughout 2006. Other coastal Mississippi casinos aren't expected to reopen for another six months.

Last year, Ameristar said the company decided against applying for a gaming license in Pennsylvania and would instead reinvest $146 million in its existing casinos this year.

The company's largest project is the rebranding of its recently purchased casino in Black Hawk, Colo., to an Ameristar-named project. Ameristar Black Hawk will have an expanded parking garage that nearly doubles its previous capacity, a remodeled gaming area and a hotel.

"With this project, we are well on the way for the property to gain a presence in the greater Denver market comparable to our achievements in our other markets," Neilsen said.

Ameristar is also adding 400 hotel rooms and other amenities to Ameristar St. Charles, outside of St. Louis, and is building a parking garage and adding a larger casino in Vicksburg.

Neilsen said during a conference call with analysts and investors that Ameristar was also making plans to expand its casino in Council Bluff, Iowa.

"With the high tax rates, this seems like the wisest choice," Ruggiero said. "They are a strong company in their markets so that seems to be the right course to take."

Neilsen said that although Ameristar pulled out of Pennsylvania, the company hasn't stopped seeking opportunities in new markets.

"We plan to aggressively grow the company and we're working hard in that direction," Neilsen said.

Ameristar, which announced its earnings after the stock market closed Wednesday, ended the session on the Nasdaq National Market at $24.65, down 13 cents, or 0.52 percent.

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