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Casino reopenings great news for many on Coast

Biloxi — “Isle be back,” was the catchy promise on Coast billboards following Hurricane Katrina. And that promise was kept December 26 when approximately 1,000 people showed up for the reopening of the Isle of Capri. The Isle, which was the Coast’s first dockside casino when it originally opened in 1992, also became the Coast’s first land-based casino to open, and the first business of any kind to reopen south of U.S. 90 in Harrison County.

After Hurricane Katrina put the casinos out of businesses when barges washed up over Highway 90, legislation was passed allowing casinos to rebuild out of the water where their investments — and the jobs and the annual $500 million in tax revenues created by them — would be better protected.

“The important thing is that we put a thousand people back to work,” said Justin Hill, director of marketing for the Isle of Capri in Biloxi. “Our crew did a great job of getting our property cleaned up, along with the new construction.”

The Isle transformed all of its convention and meeting space, about 40,000 square feet, to a casino with 1,100 gaming positions including 728 new slots, 29 tables games and a new poker room. The Isle’s 550 hotel rooms were filled for the holidays, and a survey of vehicles arriving showed a lot of visitors were from Alabama and Louisiana.

“Folks from the outer market who have been coming to our property for the past several years managed to come back to help us start rebuilding,” Hill said.

IP sees ‘fabulous’ response

The IP in Biloxi, which has shortened its official name from Imperial Palace, had the distinction of being the first Coast casino to reopen just days before Christmas. There were long lines of cars backed up on the I-110 to get into the casino for its opening.

Jon Lucas, president and general manager of IP, said that business since reopening has been great.

“The response from the public has been fabulous,” Lucas said. “We have upgraded, remodeled and renovated the casino and now have 1,900 slot machines — the most of any casino on the Coast — 52 table games, and a new poker room with 16 poker tables.”

The IP located on the Back Bay of Biloxi was more sheltered from the storm than the casinos on U.S. 90. Its hotel opened soon after the storm, with most of the rooms going to house FEMA workers. FEMA workers moved out prior to the casino opening, and rooms are now available to the general public. Of the resort’s 1,088 hotel rooms, 700 are available to the general public and the remaining rooms are under renovation. IP was sold out for the New Years holiday.

A few adjustments

The third casino to reopen after the storm, the Palace Casino on Back Bay, opened just before the New Year. The Palace Casino’s barges were heavily damaged, so to reopen quickly the hotel lobby was converted into a casino with 826 slot machines and 14 table games. A ballroom was converted into a buffet.

Traffic has been congested on the Coast since the storm due to a combination of the loss of major bridges combined with additional traffic from construction workers and trucks hauling debris. But for the casino openings, the traffic congestion with hundreds of vehicles headed back to bright lights and clamor of the slot machines was seen as a positive sign. There were some who feared that people would still be too busy recovering from Katrina to have time or money to visit the casinos.

“People have been asking the question, ‘Is the public ready for the casino industry to reopen?’” said Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. “The answer is, ‘Yes’! What the casino openings mean is that people can see a tangible sign of our recovery. Thousands of people are returning to work, and we’re seeing thousands of hotel rooms come on line.”

Holloway said that the importance to the local economy is not just the casinos reopening, but casino resorts that include restaurants, hotel rooms, spas and other amenities.
“Of course, these are all very important sources of state and local government tax revenues,” Holloway said.

Approximately two months before Katrina hit, the City of Biloxi paid $92,000 for business interruption insurance to cover loss of the city’s casino revenues due to a hurricane. Biloxi, believed to be the only city in the state with such insurance, recently received a $10-million payment for the policy that covered six months of casino revenues. The Biloxi Public School system also had a $3 million business interruption policy.

Bringing back tourism economy

Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, said the casinos reopening were an extremely important kickoff to bringing back the Coast’s tourism economy.

“The fact we have three of the casino properties open within four months of the hurricane is really amazing,” Richer said. “And all three of the properties and their leaders deserve a lot of credit for getting people back to work, and stimulating the return of our visitors. It is great that they have all done some upgrading. It makes for a pretty happy New Year.”

Richer said the Coast is going into the New Year in an optimistic mode with the improvements in air service to the Gulf Coast, the reopening of a vital north-south artery in Biloxi, the Popps Ferry bridge, the reopening U.S. 90 and the passage of $29 billion in funding to help with reconstruction of Coast homes damaged by flooding.

“That all sends a tremendous signal to the investor that we are taking care of business down here,” Richer said.

While there have been concerns casino patrons might not want to drive through the devastated areas of the Gulf Coast to get to casinos, Richer said that isn’t a problem. Instead, there is a phenomenal amount of curiosity.

“The rebuilding of the Gulf Coast itself is a tourist attraction,” Richer said. “Particularly in the volunteerism area, we have lots of people coming in to help out. They will be motivated to come back often.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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