by Brendan M. Lynch | June 01, 2006

Palace Casino ResortPalace Casino Resort

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s 145 mph winds and 28-foot storm surge, much of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi lay in smithereens. In coastal Harrison County alone, 87 people died in the storm. Devastated hotels, casinos, restaurants and tourist attractions slumped up and down U.S. 90, also known as Beach Boulevard. Most buildings had been stripped bare to their I-beams, and any other structure that stood looked battered and waterlogged. In truth, a lot of the thriving beachfront development in Biloxi and Gulfport -- including a “Casino Row” that employed 17,000 people and supplied 10 percent of Mississippi’s tax revenue - seemed beyond repair.

Beau Rivage Resort & Casino


Beau Rivage Resort & Casino

Now, just 10 months later, the outlook is significantly brighter along this stretch of the Mississippi coast, despite what difficult work lies ahead.

“We’re still dealing with Katrina’s impact,” says Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. “More than 65,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. There are still lots of people living in FEMA trailers.”

Isle of Capri Biloxi Casino Resort


Isle of Capri Biloxi Casino Resort

Formerly housed comfortably in a 4,000-square-foot office, Richer and his staff are working out of a double-wide trailer for now. Funded by the county, the CVB has played an integral role in coordinating the area’s recovery and pitching in with manpower.

“We’ve had more than 10,000 volunteers down here,” notes Richer. “The faith-based organizations and other volunteer groups have been coming. It’s phenomenal. They’ve been helping people with gutting houses, putting up roofs and sheetrock. There are a lot of similarities between dealing with these groups and booking a meeting. We’re hosting so many different people that it’s hard to track them all.”

IP Hotel & Casino


IP Hotel & Casino

Apart from the personal rebuilding that Gulf Coast residents must accomplish, much of Harrison County itself -- the region encompassing Gulfport and Biloxi -- is endeavoring to rebuild as a destination for leisure and business travel. Indeed, there are plans in the works to create even greater attractions than were here before Katrina, making this a “first-tier” destination on a par with Las Vegas or Orlando, and all by a target date of 2010.

“There is a veritable avalanche of investment going on,” Richer says. “In terms of conventions and meetings, much of what we need is coming into place quickly.”

One reason for this post-Katrina boom in the Gulf Coast’s tourism product is a new law. When Mississippi legalized gambling in 1990, the state’s casinos were restricted to massive barges floating just offshore. But Katrina’s destructive force seized these barge casinos like bath toys and hurled them inland, causing unimaginable damage. About a month after the hurricane struck, and following heated debate in the Mississippi State Legislature, Gov. Haley Barbour signed a measure allowing casinos to build on dry land near the shore -- a prerequisite if the gaming industry were to roll the dice and come back to the hurricane-prone region.

The benefits of the legislation were quickly apparent: On Dec. 26, 2005, the Isle of Capri Biloxi Casino Resort, which had been the area’s first offshore casino, reopened with the Gulf’s first dry-land casino inside a 731-room hotel, featuring 1,100 slot machines, 27 table games and a new poker room. Other reopened casinos along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast include the 1,086-room Imperial Palace (now doing business as the IP), which has refurbished 1,000 guest rooms and added new eateries; and the Palace Casino Resort, which reopened Dec. 30 in its onshore hotel with 800 slot machines and 40 table games. At press time, the IP was the sole hotel-casino facility with available meeting space, and a total of about 5,000 of the area’s guest rooms were back online.

Other casino resorts are coming back to life, including the following.

* Harrah’s Biloxi Grand Casino, reduced to 500 rooms from 1,000, will reopen on Aug. 17 in a temporary locale;

* The 1,740-room Beau Rivage Resort & Casino is set to reopen on the first anniversary of Katrina’s landfall, Aug. 29;

* The Treasure Bay Casino and Condo Resort promises a September reopening (this and other rebuiding properties have yet to announce new room counts);

* The Boomtown Casino is planning a new gaming complex and a reopening by year’s end;

* The Copa Casino in Gulfport will reopen its casino in the former Oasis Hotel while the Copa’s barge undergoes repairs at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.

Best of all for the Gulf Coast’s renaissance, entirely new projects are in the works. Harrah’s reportedly is in the design phase of a new $1 billion resort and casino complex. “In the coming months and years, we will develop our property in Biloxi into a true destination resort, building on the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s position as a must-visit vacation spot,” says Anthony Sanfilippo, president of Harrah’s Central Division.

Additionally, the $500 million Bacaran Bay Casino and Condo Resort will be constructed on Back Bay Biloxi over the next two years.

Aside from casino resorts and hotels, other convention infrastructure is making a comeback. The 180,000-square-foot Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, which served as the area’s shelter of last resort during Katrina, is undergoing repairs and renovations while serving as the base for 900 FEMA personnel. The MCCCC’s 11,000-seat arena reopened in May for local graduations and social events, and the convention center might reopen by next January, according to Richer. Beyond that, a $68 million convention center expansion, financed prior to Katrina, is still planned for the facility.

There also is optimism for a few structures and development projects that were feared to be lost in the storm’s immediate wake.

“There are about 30 condo-hotel projects under way that will produce more than 10,000 guest rooms,” Richer says. “In trying to become a tier-one destination, our criteria is 30,000 area guest rooms, and we’re well on our way. We hope for 600,000 square feet of exhibit space, all under one roof. Also, we’ll have significantly more airlift. The last thing is developing a wide variety of activities and attractions. Some of the museums will definitely be here, like our earth and space museum and the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum. Also, Beauvoir [home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy] is going to bounce back. None of the charter boats were hurt. All the golf courses are open, along with all the spas, entertainment and outdoor recreation.”

Richer says one area feature is irreplaceably lost: the thousands of beautiful antebellum, Queen Anne and Greek Revival-style homes on the National Historic Register that were reduced to wooden piles.

Yet, say Richer and others involved in restoring the Gulf Coast, even this tragic loss of national and local history can be overcome by the people of the area, who themselves make this destination a friendly, interesting and fun place to visit. It is left to them to fashion a new future and a new destination -- with help not just from government workers and volunteers, but also from tourists, conventioneers and meeting planners eager to see a vital part of America get back to business.