Gulf coast rebound, casinos lucky streak

Biloxi, Mississippi (AP) – The highway along the Mississippi Gulf Coast would be forlorn if not for the casinos, which are having their best year ever.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has proven to be little more than a temporary setback to the conversion of formerly sleepy beachfront communities into the Las Vegas of the Deep South.

Although affordable housing is scarce and businesses have trouble getting insurance coverage to rebuild since the storm, 11 casinos are open in Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Lakeshore. Two are under or nearing construction and there’s talk of more coming.

„A lot of businesses haven’t reopened and aren’t going to reopen,“ said Pat Probst, a security supervisor at Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi. „The casinos are probably the only thing that has kept our economy going.“
On U.S. 90 joining Gulfport and Biloxi — known locally as Beach Boulevard — there is not one working gasoline pump. Only a handful of non-casino restaurants have reopened.

Along a highway once known for stores hawking beachwear and souvenirs, only one outlet caters to tourists looking to lie in the white Gulf sands, a chief attraction before gambling began in 1992. The others have been demolished or are storm-shattered shells.

Gili Ovakanin, comptroller of Surf Style, said the summer season was slow. Still, he’s not discouraged.

„We have a lot of faith in the city of Biloxi,“ he said. „We believe it’s going to come back and be better than it was before.“
The 12 casinos operating along the coast two years ago were no match for Katrina’s winds and storm surge on Aug. 29, 2005. At the time, state law required the gambling portion of the resorts to be on barges in the water.

In a special session called quickly after the storm, the state Legislature decided to let coastal casinos build on shore.

„A lot of the casinos, more than half, said that if they had to come back on the water, they wouldn’t have reopened,“ said Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association. „It affected their insurance.“
So far, casino companies have spent USD 1.7 billion rebuilding along the coast, according to the Gulf Coast Business Council, a corporate executives group.

And new projects are in store.

Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. has started the largest post-Katrina project with its USD 700 million Margaritaville Casino & Resort scheduled to open in 2010 in Biloxi.

Torguson Gaming Group Inc. hopes to break ground later this year on its USD 600 million Bacaran Bay resort in Biloxi, projected to open 2009, including a casino, 459-room hotel and 663 condominiums.

The casinos currently employ 17,000 people. About 70 percent of the 10,000 hotel rooms available on the coast are at casino resorts. Each casino is averaging 5,000 visitors per day, matching pre-Katrina figures, Martin said.

According to the Mississippi State Tax Commission, coastal casinos took in USD 124.7 million in gambling revenue in July, up from USD 101.7 million in July 2005, the month before Katrina. For the first eight months of 2007, the casinos have won USD 887 million from gamblers, up from USD 863.5 million for the first eight months of 2004, the last full year before Katrina.

At that rate, the casinos are in line to better 2004, their best year ever, when gamblers left behind USD 1.23 billion.

Like their resort counterparts elsewhere, the Mississippi casinos are pushing non-gambling amenities such as golf courses, spas, restaurants, and meeting and entertainment venues. Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said the split between gambling and non-gambling revenue for coastal casinos is about 65-35 percent — and headed more toward the non-gambling side.

„I could see them becoming the Atlantic City of the South,“ said Andy Holtmann, editor of the Las Vegas-based Casino Journal, a trade publication. „There’s a lot of other markets expanding, but the prospects for them are solid.“
The next step will be to boost other tourist attractions, said Brian Sanderson, the business council’s president. There are 20 golf courses in the area. More than 70 events, many of them major entertainment acts, have been staged at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum this year. And the region hopes to attract a major theme park operator within the next five years, Sanderson said.

„That will be attractive to families who come here to do gaming part of the time, but want to do more than that,“ Sanderson said.

There are signs that recovery for the rest of the Mississippi coastal economy is on the way, albeit not as quickly as casinos.

In an August report, the business council pointed to 30,000 building permits issued, a 61 percent increase in retail sales since 2004 and USD 343 million in planned military projects.

But the council said obtaining affordable property insurance remains a barrier to business and although there were 3,000 homes on the market in the region, the average USD 168,000 price „fails to meet the demand for affordable work force housing.“
Katrina severely damaged or destroyed 70,000 homes in Mississippi, including at least 8,600 rental units.

Curt Chapman, a Biloxi insurance agent, said rates for wind coverage have increased about 90 percent for homeowners and 200 percent for businesses.

Housing initially was a scramble for the 3,800 employees of Beau Rivage, an MGM Mirage Inc. property that reopened exactly a year after the storm and a USD 550 million rebuilding project. Some employees have moved inland and others are commuting from nearby Alabama, said Mary Cracchiolo, the casino’s spokeswoman.

The casino association’s Martin said talks are under way for up to seven more casinos, probably two of which will come to fruition within three to five years. Casino Journal’s Holtmann said there’s probably enough market for three or four more over the next few years.

The market is nowhere near done, said Gregory, of the casino commission.

„There are too many people knocking on the door,“ he said.