- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — State leaders expect Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to Gulf Coast casinos to prompt a volatile debate: Whether to allow casinos on land rather than over water, where the threat of monster storms is a constant gamble.

The storm ripped jagged holes in some casinos and beached others, crippling the area’s thriving tourist trade and erasing about $500,000 a day in tax revenue.

In this conservative heart of the Bible Belt, legalizing gambling 15 years ago was an uneasy compromise that confined the glitzy casinos to dockside attractions along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. The arrangement kept gambling away from the churchgoing masses further inland.

Religion now will play as large a role as economics or public safety in shaping the discussion of the future of casinos.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who campaigned in 2003 on preventing gambling from spreading, said he has not taken a position on bringing casinos ashore.

State Gaming Commission director Larry Gregory is pushing for land-based casinos, as are some casino executives. Leading lawmakers say they will entertain the idea.

Gary Loveman is chairman and chief executive officer of Harrah’s Operating Co. Inc., which runs the Grand Casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport. Part of the Gulfport Grand was ripped off its moorings during the hurricane and heaved onto coastal Highway 90. Part of the Biloxi Grand was tossed across the road.

Mr. Loveman said putting casinos on boats never made sense.

“It’s not simply an inconvenience,” he said. “It’s a public-safety problem.”

MGM Mirage is moving ahead with restoration of its $800 million Beau Rivage land-based hotel and floating casino in Biloxi. A post-hurricane helicopter tour showed that the Beau Rivage appeared to be one of the least damaged casinos along the beach.

“We plan to rebuild, and rebuild quickly,” said Bobby Baldwin, president and chief executive of Mirage Resorts.

A state law enacted this year allows casinos to be built on pilings to provide more stability in storms. None had time to do that, and it’s not clear whether pilings would have made much difference in a hurricane such as Katrina, with storm surges approaching 30 feet.

And casino companies could gamble with their very existence in Mississippi if they push to change state law because gaming opponents could try to outlaw casinos altogether.

“This might be a good time to revisit the entire subject of legalized gambling in Mississippi,” said William Perkins, spokesman for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, whose membership makes up about a quarter of the state’s 2.8 million population.

Rep. Bobby Moak, chairman of the state House Gaming Committee and a Baptist, said it would be “an economy wrecker” to eliminate an industry that employs thousands of people and pumps millions of dollars into the economy.

Katrina’s effect on the Mississippi economy could be severe. About 14,000 people work in the dozen casinos along the coastline. Each casino has a land-based hotel.

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