Growth in hospitality industry will fuel qualify-of-life improvements

Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s opening remarks to a symposium on the future of gaming in Biloxi, delivered at Tulane University’s Gulf Coast campus in Biloxi, on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007.

I’m glad to see so many of you here this evening. Attorney Mike Cavanaugh and the panel are going to give you a preview of what’s happening in the gaming industry in Biloxi and on the Gulf Coast.

I have a budget meeting starting in a few minutes, but I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on this important subject.

Some people will tell you that the economy here in Biloxi and on the Gulf Coast didn’t fully recover from Hurricane Camille until more than 20 years later, when we legalized gaming.

And I hate to think where we would be today in this post-Katrina world, were it not for the revenue and jobs created by this industry.

In the months after Hurricane Katrina, I made what some thought at the time was a bold prediction: That we would see as many as 18 to 22 casinos in Biloxi in the next 7 to 10 years.

I say that because if you check in communities that have suffered catastrophic storms – Charleston or Pensacola are two good examples – you find that whatever trends were occurring before the storm will continue at an accelerated pace.

I stand by my statement, although the cost of insurance, land and housing may slow it down slightly. But I also want you to take a step back and look at the big picture.

We’re not talking about casinos. We’re talking about casino RESORTS. They offer a much larger experience than just a casino. They offer hotel rooms, restaurants with celebrity chefs, shops and spas.

As a result, they have a much larger impact on the employment sector. They also have a much larger impact on the overall economy.

In the past 15 years, we went from a city that was on the verge of bankruptcy to a city with a vibrant economy.

We invested hundreds of millions on streets and drainage that had been neglected for years for the lack of money.

We spent more than $80 million on building new schools, including a $45 million state of the art high school and three new elementary schools.

We put computers in every classroom and we were – and ARE – the first school district in the country to have cameras in every classroom of the district.

People talk about affordable housing… months before Katrina, the first families had just moved into our 45 million affordable housing subdivisions in east Biloxi, the Hope VI project.

You talk about historic preservation. We were recognized by the White House for our efforts in historic preservation and promotion historic preservation among our residents. First Lady Laura Bush designated us a Preserve America community.

We’d spent millions on parks and recreation, including a 64-acre 10-million-dollar sports complex off Popp’s Ferry Road and we abolished registration fees for kids to play in our youth leagues, which doubled participation throughout the year. More kids were playing more sports.

We were pro-active in public safety. To get ahead of the curve and make sure that we never saw a crime problem, we increased our police and fire department budget from $5 million before casinos to $30 million in the upcoming budget. As a result, crime has not been an issue.

In fact, one of the biggest issues we had early on was traffic. That’s because we went from a million visitors a year to between 8 and 10 million a year.

And we took steps to help move traffic by building major roadways to move traffic. A new Popp’s Ferry Road, a new Back Bay Boulevard, a new Caillavet Street, and we’re creating new opportunities for small business along the way.

All of these issues I’ve talked about – public education, public safety, parks and recreation, traffic – these are quality of life issues. They make Biloxi a city where you want to live and work and raise a family.

We would not have been able to do any of these things without the revenue from gaming, and the engine that it has been for our economy.

You can’t raise taxes enough to accomplish this many things, and in Biloxi, we’ve even been able to reduce the tax rate by 50 percent over the past 15 years.

Since I have been mayor, taxes have either remained the same or gone down each of the last 14 years.

So that’s the big picture. The hospitality industry – particularly casino gaming – is the engine pulling the train.

Some people wonder how we can accommodate 18 to 22 casinos.

I think we have the existing room to do it, and if you wonder how it’s going to change our way of life, I say look at the track record. Look at how we managed it in the past.

That’s what we mean when we say we’re looking to revive the renaissance in Biloxi. We’re going to build on the great things that we had happening in the past and make a very promising future.

I hope this has given you some insight into the overall picture.