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Casino resort industry leading business recovery

The Beau is back. The Beau Rivage Casino & Resort, the Coast’s largest, is opening on the August 29 anniversary of Katrina. Grand Casino Biloxi re-opened August 17. One year after Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge lifted up casino barges like toys boats and tossed them across U.S. 90, the Coast’s casino industry is back on track — and mostly on solid ground — after literally hundreds of millions of dollars of re-investment.

The decision by the State of Mississippi to allow the casinos to rebuild on land has been credited with sparking the rebuilding boom. Most of the casinos have rebuilt on land, but two — the Beau Rivage and IP on Back Bay — had barges that stayed in place during Katrina. They opted to rebuild their gaming barges.

Mayor A.J. Holloway said the business recovery in Biloxi is being led by the casino resort industry, which in May was doing 75% of its pre-Katrina business and in June was doing 83% of pre-Katrina numbers.

“That will be even higher this month, with the August 17 opening of Grand Casino and the August 29 re-opening of Beau Rivage,” Holloway said. “The 500 and 1,600 hotel rooms they’ll be bringing online at the same time will help the pace of other businesses re-openings and give our sales tax a boost.

“In Biloxi, we have not seen the huge surge in sales tax revenue that other areas have seen in the wake of the storm. That’s because our sales tax revenue is generally tourism-related — restaurants, hotel rooms, etc. — as opposed to the big-box stores such as Lowe’s and the Super Wal-Marts or car dealerships. The numbers are coming back, though, as indicated by the statistics, and they’ll continue to climb as more and more amenities come back.”

George P. Corchis Jr., president of Beau Rivage, said he intends for the Beau Rivage to continue its legacy as a strong community leader and the crown jewel of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“We’ve been given a rare chance to do it all over again, and we have embarked on an even greater vision,” Corchis said. “We’ve gone beyond just restoring the favorite offerings of the Beau Rivage and included the kinds of amenities, technology and services that resorts built years from now will begin to provide.”

Corchis said they are confident in the future of the Biloxi market and believe the Mississippi Gulf Coast has the potential to become a top travel destination by 2010.

“As a region, we have significant opportunities for economic advancement and overall growth, from the airport expansion and additional hotel rooms, to an expanded condominium base and enhanced infrastructure,” Corchis said. “And the opening of Beau Rivage on August 29 isn’t the end of MGM Mirage’s development in Biloxi. We’ll continue our investment in the community with additions like our spectacular Tom Fazio-designed golf course, Fallen Oak, set to open November 6.”

The Beau reopening put 3,800 people back to work. That makes the Beau the largest private employer in Biloxi. The resort originally cost $800 million. An additional $550 million has been invested after the storm for a total investment of $1.35 billion.

Mary Cracchiolo, director of public relations for the Beau Rivage, said what has been accomplished in the past 12 months has been a massive undertaking.

“Clearly our opening is going to be a milestone in the Coast’s recovery,” she said.
“We’re bringing 60% of our people back. Everyone who had a job prior to the storm was guaranteed a job. We had a fantastic response from existing employees coming back, and new employees. We are all very excited about opening. It is about the ability and determination of the people of the Gulf Coast to rebuild and persevere. We clearly all mourn what we lost. There is no question about that. We were all personally impacted by that. But we feel putting 3,800 people to work really offers a message of hope. And it offers a look at the great things to come in future.”

Beau remodeling highlights include completely refurnishing all hotel rooms, great live entertainment planned every weekend, the popular buffet, a reconfigured gaming floor with a new high limits area, seven restaurants and four lounges.

Grand Casinos reopened August 19 at the hotel north of U.S. 90, putting 1,500 people back to work. The hotel has 500 rooms and three restaurants including the Grand Buffet. The resort also includes a 16,000-square-foot spa. The parent company of Grand Casino is Harrah’s, the largest casino company in the world.

The first casinos to reopen from the storm have had the market to themselves for a while. But representatives said they are happy to see the re-openings of the other casino resorts.

“We welcome competition to the market. It is a sign of continual growth and progress in the tourism industry,” said Bradley Rhines, vice president of marketing/player development for IP Hotel and Casino in Biloxi. “Through the addition of more hotel capacity, we will be able to expand and grow this market. That is exciting.”

The IP Hotel and Casino on the Back Bay of Biloxi, because of its relatively sheltered position on the north side of the Biloxi peninsula, received significantly less damage than most of the other casinos. On Dec. 22, 2005, IP was the first Biloxi casino to reopen.

“Business has been well beyond our expectations,” Rhines said.

The Isle of Capri is Biloxi has also been open since late December 2006. Rich Westphal, director of community development, Isle of Capri, said they look forward to the year ahead as more major properties open and others make progress with construction.

“It will be an exciting year on the Coast as gaming swings back almost into full gear,” Westphal said.
Westphal said business has been non-stop since it reopened. Volumes in all areas — food, hotel and gaming — have far exceeded projections.

“With all of the devastation to the Isle, the community and to the homes and lives of our Isle team members, we never thought we could have ever open so quickly,” Westphal said. “We would not be where we are today without the dedication of our local citizens and business leaders as they lobbied our state lawmakers to pass the on-shore gaming law, the wisdom of our state legislators in passing that law and the total commitment of our team members who worked tirelessly (even with their own homes needing to be rebuilt) to rebuild the Isle and to get us open.”

Two more significant casino openings are scheduled soon. Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis, formerly Casino Magic, will open August 31. And Island View Casino will open September 18 in the former Grand Casino Gulfport Oasis Hotel north of U.S. 90. Grand Casino’s properties were purchased after the storm by Gulfport natives Terry Green and Rick Carter, who had operated the Copa Casino in Gulfport prior to Hurricane Katrina. An investment of about $250 million is planned for Island View.

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

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