We need more non-gaming amenities, mayor tells gaming audience

Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s comments to an audience at the 2011 Southern Gaming Summit, made on May 5, 2011, at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center in Biloxi.

Good morning, and welcome back to Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We are glad to have you here.

Our gaming industry in Biloxi is recovering. It’s slow. It’s tedious. But it’s been steady over the past year or so.

And that will continue to improve. I firmly believe that we will continue to do OK, but I have to ask you: Is that what we really want? To do OK?

Right now, revenue-wise, we’re still short of where we were before the hurricane. Now, I know, we’ve seen the storm, we’ve seen the recession and we’ve seen the oil spill.

All have certainly had a major impact on where we are today, but I don’t think we’re really going to move forward unless we repair what I call the tourism infrastructure.

I’m not talking about streets and drainage — because we’re going to be doing a lot of that this year — but I’m talking about the non-gaming amenities.

I’m talking about the family attractions, the restaurants, water slides, the water parks, the miniature golf, and so on.

In the almost six years since Katrina, we’ve seen nearly $800 million in commercial and residential construction here in Biloxi. You wouldn’t know it when you go along the beachfront.

And make no mistake, the beachfront IS the face of tourism.

The hotel association will tell you that Coastwide, about 75 percent of our 17,000 pre-Katrina hotel rooms are back. Here in Biloxi, we had 9,200 rooms before the storm, and today we have about 6,600.

For our visitors, the bare land where those mom and pop hotels used to be along the beachfront, and the vacant lots where restaurants used to be along Highway 90 are the most glaring reminders of Katrina.

The waterfront is the face of tourism.

Some people will tell you that more hotel rooms are the key to growing the market, and to be honest, that USED to be the case.

Anytime the number of casino rooms grew, the gaming revenue grew. Each new casino room generated 75 new passengers each year at the airport.

But the fact is, we’re not filling rooms — getting the heads in the beds, as they say in the industry.

And I don’t know that we will until we get the tourism infrastructure back. The hotel association will tell you that our occupancy rate is about 62 percent.

Now, I’m NOT here to give you gloom and doom. What I’m here to tell you is that we have a challenge. We need more non-gaming amenities. And we need to tell people about what we do have.

So what are we doing about it? You can see beachfront development taking place in west Biloxi. We’ve developed an incentive plan where we’re exempting city property taxes as much as 100 percent for as long as five years, and we’ve had Harrison County do the same thing. So we’ve made it easier.

We need more people to take advantage of the programs we’re offering. We want the business.

And we need to use that $15 million in BP money to promote the things that we DO HAVE right now. Yes promote gaming, because we have that more than anywhere else. But also promote the fishing, the golf, the seafood restaurants.

And most importantly, promote our cultural attractions, the things that make Biloxi and the Gulf Coast unique. Things like Ohr-O’Keefe, Walter Anderson, the Seafood Museum, Ship Island, Beauvoir and so forth.

And our cultural events, like the Blessing of the Fleet, or the seafood festival, or Mardi Gras, and so forth.

These are the things that made us special before the storm — having the total package — and that’s what we need to get back to.

We need to give people more reasons to come here and we need to remind them of those reasons.

When we do those things, we’ll see the occupancy rate increase at the hotel rooms. We’ll see more rooms. We’ll see more traffic at the airport. We’ll see more people here for longer stays.

I appeal to those of you in this room. You’re the decision makers. You’re smart people. You know what it takes.

Build more amenities. I know you’re in the casino business, but you’re also in the tourism business.

Take advantage of the tax incentives that the Legislature put in place a couple of years ago.

We must grow. They always say what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. With the hurricane, the recession and the oil spill, we ought to be very strong right now. Let’s flex those muscles.

It’s not about being bold or aggressive. It’s about being smart. It’s about taking action.

Thank all of you again for being here, and thank you for the confidence you have in our community.