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Casinos finding ways to reopen, keep the market growing

Legalized gaming has been referred to as an economic engine for the state, pouring millions of dollars into the treasury each year for more than a decade. Hurricane Katrina’s nasty blow last August put all 12 Gulf Coast casinos out of operation. Those 12 and the thousands of people they employed made a significant contribution to the state. A 13th casino, the Biloxi Hard Rock, was scheduled to open just days after August 29. With its gaming barge completely destroyed, the Hard Rock now predicts an opening in the summer of 2007.

Currently four casinos are open — IP, the Palace, the Isle of Capri and Treasure Bay — and a fifth, Boomtown Casino, was set to reopen June 29 as the MBJ went to press. Others plan to reopen in the next few months.

With win-per-unit figures up considerably at these gaming facilities, the market remains strong. The IP, Palace and Isle of Capri opened last December and were the only casinos open until June. These three made almost $63 million in gross gambling revenue during May, according to figures released by the Mississippi State Tax Commission. That compares to $113 million a year ago when all 12 casinos were in operation.

The first casino to reopen was the IP (formerly called Imperial Palace) which repaired damage to its Back Bay facilities and did not have to open in temporary quarters.

General manager Jon Lucas says it was important to reopen the facility for many reasons. “We were the first to open because we received the least amount of damage,” he said. “We focused on reopening because we wanted to help rebuild the community. What better way to rebuild than by employing 2,000 people?”

He says it was also a business decision for the thriving gaming market; a market he believes will rebound and continue to grow.

The Palace Casino is now located on the first and second floors of its hotel lobby and has 827 slot machines and 14 table games. The hotel and two restaurants are also open.

“It’s great to get back to what we do best — providing quality gaming, accommodations, food and great service,” said general manager Keith Crosby. “We’ve returned approximately 675 jobs to the Gulf Coast’s economy.”

The Isle of Capri also reopened in temporary quarters but has grown to 1,350 slots, 35 table games and a live poker room with nine tables. They also have three restaurants, 700 rooms, a health spa and a walkway from the parking garage open.

“We were the first to open an onshore casino and the first business to open on the south side of Highway 90 in Biloxi,” Rich Westfall, director of community development, said. “We opened with 750 of our team members out of the 1,100 we had when Katrina hit. Some people moved away or found jobs elsewhere. However, we have continued to grow and now have over 1,300 team members working.”

Treasure Bay reopened in late June, minus its pirate ship, and with only 81 slot machines and a small restaurant. Guests must enter through a construction tunnel into an area that formerly was the hotel lounge. The area is completely redone with a handsome new look.

“It’s not what you expect from the construction tunnel,” said Susan Varnes, chief operating officer. “We’re glad to be open and put some of our employees back to work.”

Varnes also believes more gamblers will return to the Coast as other casinos reopen. “People who don’t like waiting on machines or waiting in line for anything will come back,” she said. “As more properties open, it will grow the market.”

Even as other casinos open, the Coast gaming scene has changed. Casino Magic Biloxi will not rebuild and sold its property to Harrah’s Entertainment, owner of the Grand Casinos. The Gulfport Grand sold its property to the owners of the Copa Casino and will not have a Gulfport location. The President Casino, which was located in the Broadwater Marina, will not reopen. However, Foxwoods Development Company is now in the design phase to build a casino resort on the old Broadwater property.

Two of Biloxi’s best known properties, the Beau Rivage and Biloxi Grand, plan to open before the end of the summer. The Beau will be in its refurbished facilities and the Grand will have temporary gaming in the Bay View Hotel on the north side of U.S. 90.

The Copa, formerly located in the State Port in Gulfport, will reopen as the Gulfport Oasis in property on the north side of U.S. 90 that was purchased from the Grand Casino.

The Silver Slipper Casino hopes to open before the end of the year at its Bayou Caddy location in Hancock County, and the former Casino Magic Bay St. Louis will reopen as Hollywood Casino in the fall.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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