- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — Floating casinos that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina can be rebuilt on solid ground under legislation signed yesterday by Gov. Haley Barbour that could lead to major changes in the tourism industry along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

All 13 hotel-casinos on the Mississippi coast were damaged or destroyed when Katrina slammed ashore Aug. 29 with killer winds and a storm surge that tore the walls off many gambling houses and tossed some of the massive barges onto land.

The measure, approved during a special legislative session that ended earlier this month, allows the casinos to build up to 800 feet inland. Religious conservatives previously had fought successfully to keep the casinos off dry land.

“This bill is about more than gaming,” said Mr. Barbour, a Republican. “By signing this bill, the state is taking the necessary precautions to provide safety for the casinos and, in turn, is providing jobs for thousands of displaced Mississippi workers.”

The state legalized casinos in 1990 but restricted them to the waters of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The new law does not affect river casinos.

“We are taking the first few steps to accomplish this by focusing on rebuilding south Mississippi and the Gulf Coast bigger and better than ever,” the governor said.

About 14,000 people worked for the coastal casinos before Katrina. Business leaders say thousands more worked in related jobs, distributing everything from beer to seafood to hand soap.

The old law requiring casinos on barges handicapped Mississippi casinos from the start, as the big gambling companies never could construct anything grand enough to rival Las Vegas, Atlantic City or even large reservation casinos.

Hurricane Katrina has given casinos a chance to rebuild as megaresorts — with more entertainment, shopping and dining options — perhaps turning the Mississippi coast into a national tourist destination.

Some casino companies haven’t announced their plans publicly, but others have hinted that they intend to invest a lot more than $100 million, the value of some of the casino barges that were washed across U.S. 90.

Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., the world’s largest gambling company, has said it will construct a “very impressive” hotel-casino in Biloxi. So far, it has not committed to resurrecting its Gulfport resort, a signal that the company could put its vast resources into one major property.

Bigger casinos and hotels with high-quality entertainment would draw some visitors, especially those from the South, who normally go to Las Vegas.

Biloxi has a long way to catch up with the top gambling markets. Last year, Nevada generated $11 billion in gambling revenues, with the bulk coming from Las Vegas. Atlantic City had $4.8 billion and Mississippi $2.7 billion.

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