First Gulf Coast Casino Set to Reopen

Nearly four months after Hurricane Katrina severely damaged Gulf Coast casinos, the first will reopen just in time for the holidays. The Imperial Palace and two other casinos opening by year's end are offering hope for the area's economy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Down in Biloxi, Mississippi, the Imperial Palace casino opens today. It's the first casino to restart operations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the billion-dollar-a-year industry nearly four months ago. Two additional Biloxi casinos will reopen before the year ends. That will give the devastated region's economy and its morale a big boost. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

It's not the beeps, chirps, bells and music of slot machines, but this sound...

(Soundbite of drill)

SCHAPER: ...on the floor of the Imperial Palace Casino is still music to Brad Rhines'(ph) ears.

Mr. BRAD RHINES (Imperial Palace Biloxi): They're putting the final touches on the drywall, the floating, the painting, the column space, putting in all the point-of-sell terminals. All the action stations are done and prepared.

SCHAPER: Rhines is vice president of marketing at the Imperial Palace Biloxi.

Mr. RHINES: Virtually every area in our barge and casino has been renovated.

SCHAPER: Since it sits on the back bay in Biloxi and not directly on the Gulf of Mexico, the Imperial Palace suffered much less hurricane damage than its rivals that line the beachfront. Rhines says that's allowed the Imperial Palace to use the nearly four months since Katrina struck to not just repair damage, but to expand, adding more slots, table games and a poker room, along with new restaurants and an updated look.

Mr. RHINES: We would have eventually upgraded our product, but based on the damages that did occur, we were able to go ahead and put the capital into it right away.

SCHAPER: And expansion means hiring more employees. In a temporary human resources office set up in what had been a waiting area outside the casino's movie theaters, more than a dozen applicants wait for job interviews and hope for a fresh start. Among them is Becca Vanderforth(ph) of Biloxi.

Ms. BECCA VANDERFORTH (Resident): A lot of people have been out of work for a while, since the storm and, you know, need to go back now.

SCHAPER: Like most here, Vanderforth lost her job at another coastal casino when Katrina destroyed it. Before the hurricane, casinos employed more than 15,000 people in Biloxi alone, and thousands more in related businesses. Since the hurricane, while some casino workers fled to other parts of the country, thousands who remained here have been out of work, though some other kinds of jobs have become plentiful. Jackie Yarborough(ph), for example, has been working as a holiday temp at a J.C. Penney. She says other retailers and fast-food outlets are desperate for help, but Yarborough says she and others have been waiting to go back to work at a casino.

Ms. JACKIE YARBOROUGH (Resident): Better job, better pay, better benefits most definitely. That's the main thing.

SCHAPER: So the reopening of the Imperial Palace today and temporary gambling floors at two more casinos over the next eight days is a big deal to Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway.

Mayor A.J. HOLLOWAY (Biloxi, Mississippi): I think it just sends a signal that we're not sitting back and waiting. We're just going right forward with what we have to do to get back on our feet.

SCHAPER: Holloway says before Katrina, casino revenue accounted for more than a third of his city's budget, and the state of Mississippi has been losing a half a million dollars a day in casino tax revenue. It will still take several years before all of the casinos rebuild and are operating at that level again, just as it will for the overall Gulf Coast recovery. Huge piles of debris still remain right where Hurricane Katrina left them almost four months ago, and hundreds if not thousands of severely damaged homes and businesses are still waiting to be torn down. When asked if the Imperial Palace reopening is a new start for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, one job applicant said tepidly, `Maybe, hopefully, because it can't get any worse, right?' David Schaper, NPR News.

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