Casinos' Rebound Brings Money, Jobs to Gulf Coast
A year ago this morning, Hurricane Katrina was battering the Gulf Coast -- flattening everything in its path. Along the coast of Mississippi, a booming casino business was destroyed -- taking with it an important source of revenue and jobs for the state.
Today, the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino reopens -- it's the seventh casino in Biloxi to do so in recent months. The reopening is the latest sign of the coastal casino industry's dramatic turnaround.
Biloxi still has years of rebuilding, but its recovery is well ahead of other Gulf Coast communities devastated by Katrina. That's due in large part to a change in state law, approved just a week after the storm. It allowed casinos -- which had been restricted to barges on coastal waters -- to rebuild on land, within 800 yards of the shore.
The state and the city of Biloxi both had a lot riding on getting the casinos to rebuild. Biloxi took in $20 million a year in gambling revenue -- more than one-third of the city's budget. The state lost a half a million dollars in tax revenue each day that the Gulf Coast casinos remained closed.
The law change led casino companies, including Harrah's and MGM Mirage, to invest billions on the Mississippi coast.
The hurricane wiped out many other entertainment options on the coast, and the casinos have been cashing in since they've reopened.
Boomtown Casino Marketing Director Chett Harrison says business has doubled in part because, with fewer casinos open, they're getting a bigger share of the strong gambling market.
Gaming revenues on the Gulf Coast jumped 15 percent from June to July, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission. And for several months now, the handful of casinos reopened in Biloxi have been pulling in 75 percent to 80 percent of the revenue that a dozen coastal casinos made before Katrina.
Construction workers and others who are making better wages due to the rebuilding boom have more money to spend in the casinos. And as they reopen, the casinos are hiring more workers as well.
Beau Rivage employment manager Marie Klazowski-Twiggs says that many people who lost their homes have left the Gulf Coast -- leaving the casinos and other employers scrambling to fill thousands of jobs, and paying more in wages and benefits as a result.
To retain workers and induce loyalty, most casinos paid employees for a few months after the hurricane, and continued benefits, even though they weren't working. Some casinos are now helping employees find places to live -- one of the biggest problems Biloxi and other coastal communities face.
With so much housing destroyed along the coast, affordable places to live are at a premium. For some, the higher wages are being eaten up by skyrocketing rents and the cost of longer commutes.
Spurred by the new onshore gaming law, most casinos are planning to become full-service resorts with spas, entertainment and other amenities they hope will draw more visitors from outside the region.
Biloxi mayor A.J. Holloway predicts a casino building boom that will make his city -- already the third-largest gaming market behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City -- even more of a national destination. He says Biloxi could have 18 to 22 casinos within the next five to 10 years.
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