Biloxi beats the odds

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A year to the day after it was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Miss., is defying overwhelming odds to reopen. It isn't serendipity or irony or coincidence that the reopening is taking place on the anniversary of one of the worst storms ever to hit the U.S. It is a matter of sheer willpower.

"We couldn't think of a better day to open," said Mary Cracchiolo, spokeswoman for the resort, which easily rivals any in Las Vegas. "If we can get something of this magnitude up and running in a one-year period and have an opportunity to thumb our nose at the storm, it has to be a strong message of hope."

To reopen on the anniversary, Cracchiolo said, about 18 months of renovations and repairs were crammed into less than 12 months.

Among other things, the property has a "completely fresh, updated look." All of the 1,714 hotel rooms have been remodeled, and 32-inch, flat-screen TVs and pillow-top mattress have been added, Cracchiolo said.

The sparkling casino and its ringing slot machines of today offer a stark contrast to the devastation that defined the spot a year ago.

"From the exterior after Katrina, it looked like it held up pretty well," Cracchiolo said. "We had weathered a number of storms in the past. The property opened in 1999, and our structure did what it was intended to do: withstand hurricane winds."

But Hurricane Katrina was unlike anything the floating casino ­-- the entire resort community, for that matter -- had ever encountered.

"We had a 24-foot storm surge that basically reached the second story, [including] the casino level and the restaurants," Cracchiolo said. "We had about four feet of water in the main level. Imagine the whole casino level with four feet of water everywhere."

The circumstances were bleak. The Beau Rivage, as well as neighboring casinos such as the Hard Rock, had suffered tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.

Nevertheless, just weeks after the hurricane, MGM Mirage, which owns Beau Rivage, pledged to rebuild the hotel, the largest employer in Biloxi. The company seemed mindful of the symbolism that pledge carried.

"With the opening of Beau Rivage, we understand that we're not just putting 3,800 people back to work," Bobby Baldwin, president and CEO of Mirage Resorts, said in a June statement. "We're helping to put 3,800 families back on their feet. This is one step, of many to come, back to normalcy for our employees and our community."

In a sense, Beau Rivage, considered the "crown jewel" of Biloxi, has come to symbolize the city's recovery, even though that recovery has been uneven.

While much media attention has been devoted to the reconstruction of New Orleans, which suffered severe flooding due to levees that failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, a city of about 51,000 people, and the surrounding area arguably suffered a more direct hit from the hurricane.

When Katrina smashed into Biloxi on Aug. 29, 2005, ferocious winds kicked up storm surges of up to 30 feet, wiping out or moving just about everything in its path.

The combined force of wind and water lifted some casino barges from their moorings and pushed them across U.S. Highway 90.

While most of New Orleans' infrastructure remained comparatively intact, about 90% of the buildings along the coast of Biloxi, about 65,000 in all, were washed away by the storm, which also claimed 53 lives. 

In its wake, the storm strewed more than two million cubic yards of debris.

At the time, Mayor A.J. Holloway described Katrina as "our tsunami," alluding to the killer wave that had decimated parts Southeast Asia nine months earlier.

Today, in addition to Beau Rivage, five of the city's other casinos are back in operation. And more are returning.

In fact, there is so much development taking place in Biloxi that Stephen Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, is predicting that Biloxi will emerge from the devastation as the country's top gaming destination outside of Nevada.

"There are new casinos, new condos, new golf courses, new marinas, new subdivisions, new airport expansion, new convention center expansion. It is incredible," he said.

The new development has been spurred in part by a change in the city's statutes, which now permit casinos to be built on land. Previously, they had to float on barges.

"That was significant because it changed the investment climate," Richer said. "It changed the insurability [of properties]. With the casinos off the barges and on land, the chances of them being destroyed as they were by Katrina went way down."

Wall Street and other financial institutions took notice. Now, Donald Trump is planning to build a casino, and Foxwoods has picked Biloxi as the site of its first casino resort outside of Connecticut.

"I think people are looking at the profile here in terms of visitors, and they think this is a good place to be because it has Nevada-style taxation and regulations," Richer said. "The gaming industry is thriving, and a lot of things are coming with it, including more shopping centers. We also have a whole boom of condo-hotels. Before the storm, we had about five or six dozen proposed projects. Now we have four dozen. It is pretty dramatic.

"I would argue, based on my experience, that we were already on the path to become the second-most important destination with gaming."

It's not all rosy in Biloxi

While the future seems promising, the city still faces significant challenges.

Soon after Katrina cut a destructive swath through Biloxi, David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western International, toured the area to review the damage to the city and to Best Western hotels.

Visiting the area again nearly a year later, Kong said he was surprised by how much work still needed to be done.

"When I came [the first time], I was sad but filled with hope that we were going to help these hotels rebuild and be even better than before," he told Travel Weekly. "This time, I came back and I felt sad, and I felt helpless. There are so many things that are not within our control. If you look at the beach area, it used to be so vibrant. It was a happening place. Now, there is nothing going on, aside from the casinos. All of the homes are gone. All of the businesses are gone. It is just scary to look at it."

Of the 10 Best Western hotels in the Biloxi area before the storm, only five have so far managed to reopen.

"They have had a hard time settling with the insurance companies," Kong said. "It is at the crux of the matter there."

Even though Katrina packed winds strong enough to lift floating casinos out of the water and toss them onto roads, "the insurance companies are [contending much of the storm damage] was caused by water, not wind," said Kong, scoffing at the claim.

With no money coming from insurance, Kong said that it is expensive to rebuild.

For the Best Western Seaway and other hotels fortunate enough to have already reopened, business has been good, though many recent occupants have been construction workers and others involved in rebuilding the area.

Others needing rooms are locals who are still unable to rebuild their homes.

Until February, the hotel was housing employees who had lost everything in the storm, said Rosie Lowe, general manager of the property.

Best Western Seaway made news even before Katrina hit, when the city aquarium arranged to place two dolphins in the hotel's pool for safekeeping during the storm. The dolphins survived and went on to entertain guests who had also sought shelter at the hotel.

Lowe said Best Western Seaway has operated with a skeleton crew for months. Many other businesses find themselves in the same position.

"We would only clean the rooms every other day because we didn't have the staff to do it," Lowe said.

And with the casinos like the Beau Rivage reopening, the competition for workers is becoming intense, Low said. That is also a positive sign of recovery.

"We feel a bit more optimistic now," she said.

While Biloxi still has far to go in its recovery, there is a growing sense that the CVB's optimism is justified.

"We're confident in the future of the Biloxi market," George Corchis, Beau Rivage's president and COO, said in a statement.

"We believe the Mississippi Gulf Coast has the potential to become a top travel destination by 2010."

To contact reporter Mike Milligan, send e-mail to[email protected].

What's Open

" IP Hotel & Casino: Damaged by Hurricane Katrina, it was the first of Biloxi's casinos to reopen after the storm. It now has 956 refurbished hotel rooms, 1,900 slot and video poker machines, 54 table games, a new 16-table poker room, restaurants, and nightclubs.

" Boomtown Casino: Located in Biloxi's Back Bay, this casino has 1,000 new slot machines, 22 table games and a 350-seat restaurant.

" Isle of Capri Casino Resort: In addition to 900 hotel rooms and suites, the casino offers 1,100 slot machines, 27 table games, a new poker room, a spa, a pool and a restaurant.

" Palace Casino Resort: With 800 slot machines, 14 table games and a restaurant, this resort is anchored by 234 hotel guest rooms.

" Grand Casino Biloxi: The resort features 500 hotel guest rooms, 800 slot machines, 20 table games and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected]

What's coming soon

" Island View Casino Resort: Slated to reopen in September.

" The Hard Rock Casino: Opening is scheduled for July 2007.

" Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis: This resort, previously known as Casino Magic Bay St. Louis and now under new ownership, is accepting reservations for an Oct. 1 opening. Some features of the resort, such as the Bridges Golf Club, are currently undergoing renovations.

" The Silver Slipper Casino: Opening is slated for October.

What's in development

" Bacaran Bay Casino Resort: Owned by the Torguson Gaming Group, this $500 million resort will feature 680 all-suite hotel rooms, 432 condominiums, a 40-lane bowling alley and an Arnold Palmer golf course. Opening is slated for fall 2008.

" The Broadwater: Encompassing two casinos, a 1,900-room hotel, 3,375 condominium units, an 18-hole golf course, 585,00 square feet of retail/entertainment space, a 125,000 square-foot gaming floor and 104,000 square feet of convention space, this $1 billion project is backed by Foxwoods, marking the casino operator's first venture out of Connecticut.

" Golden Nugget: A site in Biloxi's Point Cadet area was acquired by Landry's Restaurants, owner of Golden Nugget hotels in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev.

" Harrah's Entertainment: The Casino Magic Biloxi property, located near the Grand Casino Biloxi, has been acquired by Harrah's, which intends to invest $1 billion refurbishing it.

" Isle of Capri: This resort operator has plans for a $300 million, 500-room property in Harrison County.

" Trump: In partnership with the Diamondhead Casino Corporation, Trump Entertainment Resorts will develop a 40-acre resort on the Bay of St. Louis near Diamondhead.

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