Casinos Change the Face of Biloxi
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
2007 was a record year for Mississippi casinos. They raked in nearly three billion dollars, which is remarkable after the pounding the Gulf Coast took from Hurricane Katrina. After the storm in 2005, there were suggestions the casinos might not return. Well, now it seems Katrina may have been the best thing that ever happened to gambling in the seaside city of Biloxi.
NPR's John Burnett paid a visit.
JOHN BURNETT: In 1969, Hurricane Camille roars through Biloxi destroying the illegal slot machines, craps tables and roulette wheels that thrive in the beachfront clubs along U.S. Highway 90. That era of gambling never recovers. Thirty-six years later, Katrina pulverizes Biloxi. But today, the giant Las Vegas-style casinos looming over the beach have not only recovered, they're booming.
Mr. ROBERT SIMMONS (IP Casino Patron): Blackjack. Oh, man.
BURNETT: Robert Simmons(ph) stands 6 foot 5 and wears a necklace with the word love spelled out in gold.
Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, man, look at you. Give me a six. All right, good.
BURNETT: He comes here several nights a week to the IP Casino on Biloxi's Back Bay with his wife Glenda(ph).
Ms. GLENDA SIMMONS (IP Casino patron): We have fun.
Mr. SIMMONS: Entertainment.
Ms. SIMMONS: And entertainment. And you're not hurting yourself. You're not spending your house note and your car note.
Mr. SIMMONS: That's the expression here.
BURNETT: In addition to frequenting the blackjack table, Robert Simmons is a lobbyist for the casinos.
Mr. SIMMONS: We call these the big engines - the casinos - and I was very much a part of having get them reestablished and making - working with the governor and the legislature that it was about pumping money into the economy. We really need that.
BURNETT: Remember of Biloxi after the storm with the casino barge sitting beside Highway 90? Mississippi was afraid Katrina would chase away the industry which is the state's largest taxpayer and employer. So the legislature passed a special law allowing the casinos to move from their floating barges to permanent land-based operations at the water's edge. With that decision, the gaming industry hit the jackpot.
(Soundbite of bell dinging)
BURNETT: Today 11 out of 12 casinos have rebuilt along the coast, many of them bigger than ever. Three more are on the way. Most of them have reached what industry insiders call market maturity. The ungainly casino barges had arrived in 1992. And in an industry where razzle-dazzle is everything, it was time for an extreme makeover. Take the Imperial Palace.
Mr. JON LUCAS (General Manager, IP Hotel and Casino): It was not a clean property. The food was inedible. It just was not a good property.
BURNETT: General Manager, Jon Lucas, was brought in two months before Katrina to remodel the dowdy gaming complex. After the storm, the owners went all out spending $200 million to reopen as the IP with more slot machines, better restaurants and a hip, modern look.
Mr. LUCAS: If there is such a thing as a silver lining in the worst natural disaster in the history of our country, that was our silver lining because we had the opportunity to reposition this property and come out after the hurricane as a whole new property.
BURNETT: The refrain has heard all along Casino Row where Duncan McKenzie is general manager of the Hard Rock Casino.
Mr. DUNCAN McKENZIE (General Manager, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino): We've called Katrina our tragic opportunity. It has been our opportunity to do things better.
BURNETT: Before the storm, most visitors to Biloxi remembered the graceful, white columned antebellum mansions facing Mississippi Sound. They're gone now. The hurricane destroyed more than a third of Biloxi's historic buildings. Today, what you notice along the waterfront are the Hard Rock's glittering guitar, The Isle of Capri's tropical bird and the garish electronic sign of the Beau Rivage advertising Engelbert Humperdinck and hot slots. City Councilman, Bill Stallworth, is worried the casinos now define Biloxi.
Mr. BILL STALLWORTH (City Councilman, Biloxi, Mississippi): What will this town look like in the near 15 to 20 years? Will it be a place that you want to visit and remember how quaint and how nice and I want to come back to, or this becomes just a strip of high lights and glass casinos?
Ms. DORIS BUSH (Former School Teacher): You look at all the homes and businesses that were destroyed. They really, you can't replace them.
BURNETT: Former school teacher, Doris Bush(ph) - known allover town as Ms. Bush - is a 102 years old.
Ms. BUSH: Because I don't care how you build. You can't - there are some things you can't replace.
BURNETT: City officials would add, gaming revenues have become irreplaceable. The Gulf Coast casinos employ nearly 15,000 people. In terms of taxes, four cents out of every dollar the house wins goes to local schools, public safety, fire protection and city government. Eight cents goes to the state.
It's no wonder Mississippi and Biloxi have a gambling addiction. Biloxi Mayor, A.J. Holloway, steers his SUV through this peninsular city of 50,000. Now that the storm (unintelligible) has been cleared away, parts of it look like a vast urban park - further evidence of the acute housing shortage.
Mr. A.J. HOLLOWAY (Biloxi City Mayor): If it wouldn't be for the casino, we wouldn't be anywhere. Our tax base is way down as you can see all these empty lots.
BURNETT: Mr. Mayor, if you had to pick between the two, which would be more important - I know this is unrealistic - FEMA or the casinos coming back?
Mr. HOLLOWAY: Well, the casinos because they're going to be able (unintelligible), you know?
BURNETT: FEMA is vital, he says, but they are just here for a while.
John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.
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