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Coast remains a year-round travel and tour destination

Mississippi Gulf Coast — New things are opening every day, so come on down and join us — that’s the message the Coast’s leading tourism executive would like to tell residents of the state and the nation. Stephen B. Richer, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, is optimistic about the area’s tourism outlook.

“We have a good story to tell and we’ll be telling it for the next two years,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of media attention, a lot of people are investing here, and a lot of people are coming here to work and to volunteer their help. It would cost millions to get a fraction of the publicity we’re getting.”

The storm gave the area high visibility. “There are a lot of good feelings about us and people know where we are; that we’re not on the Mississippi River,” he said. “The volunteers coming down were treated well and they’re taking that story back home.”

Ongoing attention

Much of the area’s attention is coming from investors as big name condos and casinos find favor with the Mississippi Coast. Foxwoods and Harrah’s are two of those high-profile companies planning to invest billions of dollars.

“We’re trying to work with the marketplace through the financial media and companies that tell us where people are going to invest in hotels, condos and casinos,” Richer said. “The media interest really helps with people investing here.”

Currently, there are approximately 6,500 rooms available, up from the 3,000 available immediately following the storm. That’s 30% of the pre-storm number but that percentage is producing 50% of the room tax that was generated then. With rooms opening all the time, Richer says 10,000 rooms will be open by the New Year.

With less room taxes, the tourism commission has cut back on paid advertising and market research. However, the Web site is still active and the 17 remaining employees are working in two trailers. Industry associations have waived annual dues and registrations for meetings and conferences.

“We still have golf, fishing, restaurants and shopping. All of those are going great,” he said. “Even with less we have more to offer than most places.”

And, he feels it’s important to state that the area is not a seasonal destination but extends beyond the traditional summer tourist season.

Gaming rebound

The three casinos that have been open since last December produced 55% to 65% of the gaming revenue that 12 casinos produced prior to Katrina. A fourth casino, Treasure Bay, opened on June 22 with less than 100 slot machines, but it will have more to offer this fall. Boomtown Casino on Biloxi’s Back Bay opened on June 29. Others are scheduled to open in the next few months.

The Isle of Capri Casino Resort was one of the first casinos to open and is bringing some fun and normalcy back to storm-ravaged Biloxi. The Isle’s Caribbean/calypso brand is distinctively cheerful for both gaming and non-gaming visitors. At this time it has 1,350 slots, 35 table games, a live poker room, 700 hotel rooms and three restaurants available.

Rich Westfall, senior community development director, says things are going well and the crowds are coming in. The Isle was the first to open an on-shore casino and the first business to open on the south side of U.S. 90 in Biloxi.

Other attractions

Other attractions that are back include the Seafood Museum’s Biloxi schooners, Ship Island excursions, the Biloxi Shrimping Tour, Gulf Islands Water Park, the Walter Anderson Museum and some areas of the beach.

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport is open, too, but more visitors are wanted at the colorful, hands-on children’s museum. “We need more families to come see us. It’s been slow,” says Mary Ann Caldwell, the center’s spokeswoman. “We were committed to opening this summer so families would have somewhere to go.”

The first floor of the museum remain closed, but open areas include six exhibits, the outdoor café, Bear Creek, and the tree-shaded six acres with its three tree houses. Caldwell said the center hopes to open more exhibits later this summer. Currently, they are offering family discounts and free Friday night activities.

Committed industry

Richer is confident the area that normally produces one-third of the state’s tourism revenue will rebound to produce a greater percentage as more rooms and attractions come online. He even believes the Coast will, in coming years, surpass Atlantic City and Reno — two gaming destinations where he worked before coming to Mississippi. “I’m enjoying that,” he added.

While investors are poised to invest billions — probably more than in any period of time — Richer says some may want to see what happens this storm season. “They see we have a plan, new codes and a focus on rebuilding,” he said. “We have strong leadership in Mississippi. There is no future unless we guarantee one.”

He and the tourism commission are committed to working toward the goal of 30,000 rooms and 600,000 square feet of meeting space by 2010 as recommended by the Governor’s Commission on Rebuilding.

He concedes that the area can’t bring back everything lost to the hurricane. “We will be different,” he said. “There are some buildings that were listed on the National Register of Historic Places that won’t come back. We have lost some culture, but some things can be rebuilt from the architectural plans we have.”

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

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