|By Gayle White, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 9, 2005 - BILOXI, Miss. -- The storm surge that came with Hurricane Katrina, washing giant casino barges ashore and tossing slot machines like dice, waterlogged a lot of hopes in this coastal city.
Many of the bettors who brought their quarters, dollars and credit cards to glittery gaming rooms went away losers; Biloxi and its citizens have been on a winning streak since the first casino opened in 1992.
"Some people say casino gambling is the engine driving our economy," said city spokesman Vincent Creel, 44, a Biloxi native.
"It's really the whole train."
Of Biloxi's 55,000 citizens, 15,000 made a living dealing cards, parking cars and serving meals to visitors -- more than 10 million people each year -- or as accountants, marketers and managers in the casinos.
Others operated ancillary businesses, furnishing supplies to the high-rise hotels or services to the people who worked there.
Biloxi itself raked in $20 million a year in tax on gaming revenue -- a third of its annual budget. An additional $12 million came from a sales tax, much of it paid by tourists in the casino hotels.
With casino-generated taxes, Biloxi built a $35 million high school, opened its recreational leagues to all children free of charge, improved the streets and doubled the size of its police and fire departments.
Not bad for a city that lost population in the 1980s.
Casinos were "the tide" that raised everything else, said Creel, who then apologized when he realized the irony of the analogy.
Now, a giant barge from Grand Casino Biloxi is aground across the street from the beach. Slot machines and chairs have spilled out into dark brown mud. A filthy menu from the Lady Luck restaurant lies in the street.
Other casinos -- the Isle of Capri, Casino Magic, the Imperial Palace -- are damaged or destroyed. The giant red guitar in front of the Hard Rock stands, but plans for Biloxi's newest casino -- ready to open when Katrina hit -- are on hold.
Rosie Murray, 49, worked as a housekeeper at the Isle of Capri for six years. She's out of work.
Corey Boykin, 25, a maitre'd at the Imperial Palace's Crown Room, made his way through a security checkpoint at the hotel to pick up his paycheck. He has no plans. He's waiting to see whether there will be a place for him at the Imperial Palace during reconstruction.
Vivian Kelley, 61, was a supervisor in guest services for the Grand, making sure people were happy as they poured their money into the slot machines or onto the poker tables. Now, her house is flooded and her job is gone. She said her "Employee of the Month" certificate floated by her as she weathered the storm atop a kitchen counter.
Still, she is optimistic. "I think that no matter what, there's going to be work around here," she said. "So much has to be done."
Several of the casinos have set up relief centers for their employees and announced plans to pay people for up to 90 days.
Harrah's, which owns the Grand, said in a statement that it is donating a million dollars to community recovery efforts and is keeping its employees on the payroll, paying health care premiums and offering relocation to another Harrah's casino.
MGM Mirage said it would "quickly" rebuild its Beau Rivage resort and pay its 3,400 employees for 90 days. Some employees could be given jobs at other properties.
Premium Entertainment, operator of the Hard Rock, said it is "currently assessing the damage" but believes it is "adequately insured" and will rebuild.
Casino Magic is "closed indefinitely."
Any plans to reopen the casinos may bog down in a legislative battle. State law requires that any gambling facility be offshore. But Katrina illustrated the danger of floating casinos: Not only were some destroyed, some damaged other buildings when they washed ashore.
Tough rebuilding job
Some Biloxi residents are looking for jobs in the cleanup operations.
Leo Moreno, 21, and Lawrence Atkins, 28, found work with a crew cleaning up the Imperial Palace, but they weren't happy. They started in the morning, ripping up carpet, expecting to be paid cash at the end of the day.
Instead, they said, supervisors told them they'd receive checks in the mail after two weeks.
"I won't be here tomorrow, I can tell you that," said Atkins.
Many of the companies rebuilding the casinos will bring in their own crews from outside, predicted Bill Lanham, Biloxi's controller.
And though those people may bring in some money, there's no place for them to spend it with everything closed, he said.
In the beginning, the city reserved its gaming revenue for capital projects that could be discontinued if gambling money fell, Lanham said. "But over 13 years, we've become more dependent."
Said city spokesman Creel: "For this city to have a future, we need to get those casinos back."
Like a gambler with visions of a jackpot, he added, "Those casinos have given us a glimpse of what our future could be."
To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ajc.com.
Copyright (c) 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. ISLE, PNK, MGG, MGM,