Gaming audiences told of reasons for promise in Biloxi

Following is the text of remarks Mayor A.J. Holloway delivered May 5, 2006 to the Southern Gaming Summit Tunica, Miss., and May 10, 2006 to the American Gaming Association convention in Las Vegas.

One of the things that has made the story of Biloxi so compelling since Aug. 29, 2005, is, as The Washington Post called it the other day, “the reversal of fortune” that we’ve endured.

The Post was referring to the rebounding economy and enthusiasm in Biloxi, coupled with anxiety about our future, and issues such as affordable housing, land-use plans and the myriad other challenges we face.

Biloxi has a compelling story, and let me tell you why. In the decade before Katrina, we were enjoying the most prosperous and productive time in our 300-plus year history

We oversaw 6 billion dollars worth of development in Biloxi. 10 casino resorts helped create 15,000 new jobs. We saw the number of hotel rooms on the Coast grow from 6,000 to nearly 20,000. We went from a million visitors a year to between 8 and 10 million a year.

We invested tens of millions in public education, public safety and recreation, we invested in our heritage and culture and preserved historic neighborhoods, and we cut our tax rate in half while we were providing our residents a much-deserved and enhanced quality of life.

We were doubling the size of our airport and were getting ready to start on a project to double the size of our convention center.

Then Hurricane Katrina came along.

6,000 homes and businesses in Biloxi were destroyed. Hundreds of historic homes and landmarks.

Entire blocks of neighborhoods were reduced to debris fields. Huge casino barges broke from their moorings and were pushed three-quarters of a mile and across a four-lane beachfront highway.

Our infrastructure was decimated. And, let’s not forget, 53 people lost their lives in Biloxi.

But months after Katrina, even as we were dealing with day-to-day issues of recovery, we came to realize something.

The decade of prosperity we were enjoying before the storm was only a glimpse of what our potential is today. We stand poised to reach even greater plateaus of prosperity and opportunity.

This is not just A.J. Holloway talking. The facts bear witness to what I’m telling you.

Just the other day, Harrah’s Entertainment made history in Biloxi when they were the first operator to take full advantage of the new legislation allowing shore-based gaming.

At the same time last week, Foxwoods Development Group announced its plans for a 400 million dollar casino on 16 acres at the Broadwater.

Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which was scheduled to open the week after the storm has taken on a new partner.

And Boomtown was advancing its re-opening timetable for its casino to this summer.

By the end of this year, we should have seven casino resorts back in operation.

Why all of this interest? Because people like you in this room know what’s happening in Biloxi.

Three of the 10 casino resorts in Biloxi re-opened in December. IP, the Isle and the Palace.

Today, that 30 percent of our Biloxi  industry is generating nearly 70 percent of the pre-storm gross gaming revenue.

We’re seeing brisk business, thanks primarily to our guests from the east — from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee.

We’re hearing from those visitors who helped grow our industry over the years.

I thought I misread the local newspaper recently when someone was quoted as saying the casino market in Biloxi is flat, and that it’s been flat since 1999, when the Beau Rivage opened.

I had to read it twice, and it still didn’t make sense to me. The numbers don’t lie.

The Beau opened in March 1999. That year,  we saw gaming revenue jump to 775 million dollars, which was a 35 percent increase over the previous year.

You can see how “flat” we’ve been since 1999 by comparing it to 2004, which is what you could call our last “normal” year.

In 2004, the casinos in Biloxi grossed 911 million dollars. That’s an 18 percent increase in the five years since the Beau opened.

I’ve picked up a few things in that decade of prosperity I’ve been telling you about. As mayor, I make it a point to keep up with an industry that employs 15,000 people in my city and provides millions of dollars in revenue to our city and state.

The first thing is that casino hotel rooms are what drive the gaming revenue figures.

Those 1,800 hotel rooms that the Beau opened in 1999 are what drove the business.

And that 18 percent jump we saw in the revenue between 1999 and 2004 is the result of the different casino properties in Biloxi ramping up to remain competitive.

More hotel rooms. More restaurants. Providing a level of service and an experience that encourages visitors to return again and again.

We were doing that. The demand was there, and it’s still there. In fact, if you look at the revenue figures in places like Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans, you’ll see that they’re all up because of the lack of gaming opportunities in Biloxi.

But that’s going to be changing soon. Real soon.

I mentioned 6 billion dollars in development in that decade leading up to Katrina.

In the eight months since then we’ve seen concrete proposals for nearly 3 billion dollars since the storm.

That’s in the casino industry alone. That doesn’t count the tremendous interest in condominiums.

We had proposals for about 3,000 condo units before the storm, and that number stands at 9,500 today.

The casino operators, condo developers, our local community and our loyal customer base are all seeing the same thing in Biloxi: a promising and exciting future.

And let me say something that we were saying before the storm. We don’t want to be the Las Vegas of the South.

They say “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” That’s been a pretty good campaign.

If you had to tweak it a little for Biloxi, you could say, “What happens in Biloxi is history. MAKING history.”

We want to be what we are – and that’s Biloxi. A great city with small-town charm, a host of amenities. A city with a colorful history and a great future.

I want to thank all of you for the support and encouragement that you’ve shown to me and to the citizens of Biloxi. You have a role in that promising future I talk about.

Private investment will be the catalyst fueling our momentum.

Private investment will provide a sustainable rate of growth and a promising long-term recovery.

Private investment will help us provide a quality of life that will surpass that which we enjoyed pre-Katrina

Governor Barbour has said he wants to see a renaissance created as part of the rebuilding process.

We couldn’t agree more. In fact, in Biloxi, we’re going to go about reviving the renaissance we were enjoying prior to Katrina.

Following up on the governor’s words that it’s going to be up to the local communities to determine how their respective cities will look, we have begun planning for the components that will be so vital to our long-term recovery.

We have launched the Reviving the Renaissance initiative, which will help us address issues like affordable housing, public education, streets and drainage, historic preservation, and, of course, the new challenges from the FEMA flood elevations.

Nearly 200 of our residents have volunteered to take part in this movement. They’re addressing these complicated and challenging issues.

How are we going to do it? We’re going to look at the things that made us successful in the past. We’re going to build on those qualities to help make us even more successful in the future.

Our role in city government, as I see it, is to set the table for economic development. To provide the essential services and infrastructure that pave the way for the creation of jobs and growth.

And to provide an environment where our residents will find the excellent quality of life they deserve, and where our visitors will re-discover a place they want to visit again and again.

The people of Biloxi have shown time and again that we’re up to this challenge, and I’m confident that we will not only endure but we will prevail.

Many of you in this room share that view. You realize the opportunity that exists in Biloxi.

I thank you for your support in the past, and I look forward to working with you as we make history. Again.

God bless all of you. God bless Mississippi and God bless Biloxi.