Those of us from the Gulf Coast know full well that the destruction left Aug. 29, 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and weeks later Hurricane Rita is almost impossible to describe to our friends from other parts of the country. We’re living it every day and, clearly, we have a long way to go, but for ourselves and these same friends, it’s important to let people know how far we have come in the 24 months since this storm made landfall.
An April, 2007, report by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government studied Katrina and its aftermath and paints a graphic picture of the destruction for those who haven’t been at ground level: “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did not just flood a few streets and beaches and damage a few houses; they leveled - literally - an area the size of Great Britain. Homes, businesses, infrastructure, municipal services - virtually everything that enables a community to function was badly damaged, destroyed or simply washed away in the fury of the storms.”
Indeed, Katrina and Rita delivered a blow that almost knocked us out. But we have, as we always do, stepped up and fought back.
We are setting a new paradigm for success in Mississippi; so much so that the date August 29 could soon be known as much for when a new Mississippi was born as for when the storm tore into the Gulf Coast.
That is being borne out by the progress being made on rebuilding in the wake of the destruction. The Rockefeller Institute study found: “Both Louisiana and Mississippi are thriving economically in this post-Katrina era … construction is booming … and tourists are returning in increasing numbers.”
After commenting on the rise in Mississippi sales tax revenues along with an increase in the state’s general fund revenues of almost 13 percent in the 2006 budget year - and noting the recent action by the state’s Legislative Budget Committee and the governor to increase the 2007 budget estimate from $4.4 billion to nearly $4.7 billion - the Rockefeller Institute concludes that: “Overall, Mississippi’s economic fortunes are bright.”
The February, 2007, John Stennis Institute of Government “GulfGov Report: 18 months later” also commented positively on Mississippi’s astounding progress. One area the report was particularly upbeat about was the state’s gaming sector, saying: “Biloxi and Gulfport casinos are a driving force behind property development that is on the upswing. Multimillion dollar condominiums seem to be selling well in advance of their being built.”
We are not just rebuilding, we are redefining the future of the Gulf Coast and the gaming industry has been a pivotal contributor to this renaissance. During the past 24 months the industry has:
- Re-opened 10 properties along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino;
- Invested nearly $1.4 billion for reconstruction on the Mississippi Coast;
- Brought nearly 20,000 gaming industry employees back to work. These employees have a combined annual salary of nearly $500 million (for the first quarter of 2007, Mississippi Coast casinos alone had payrolls of $97.98 million); and
- Produced $345.6 million in gaming revenues during the first quarter of 2007, which exceeded those for the same time period in 2005.
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway noted on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Isle of Capri a few weeks ago that: “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.”
He also predicted that the city would be the beneficiary of the largest building boom ever seen in the South, and he sees as significant a new $50 million airport terminal on the Gulf Coast, allowing the number of annual passengers to exceed 2.4 million. In Biloxi, hotel construction is expected to pick up this year along with the construction of 12,000 condo and condotel units. A $68 million convention center expansion is also under way.
A survey of Gulf Coast leaders was conducted by the American Gaming Association to determine the status of the Gulf Coast’s recovery through the eyes of the community leaders and gaming industry executives.
This group included a knowledgeable and accomplished segment of the local population, from college professors and bank presidents to Chamber of Commerce directors and leading figures in the public sector on economic development and community rebuilding.
Importantly, 60 percent live and work in Mississippi and 45 percent have lived and worked on the Gulf Coast for more than 20 years. The survey respondents reported that the gaming industry is leading the way in recovery efforts, both as a significant contributor to the overall recovery and as the fastest-recovering industry in the region.
Some 65 percent of the respondents said casino companies operating in their area “very much helped”in aiding local recovery, with another 30 percent saying the industry “somewhat helped” get the region back on its feet.
Mississippi has enacted the best model for legalized gaming in the nation - one in which luxury gaming, hotel, golf, and other amenities are proven, permanent catalysts for tourism.
As someone who for years has watched this industry as it contributed to the growth and progress of many areas in our state prior to Katrina, I am very proud of the part we are playing now, and how that translates into a new future for Mississippi. Gaming is integral to the fabric of life within the communities where it is located and has become a prominent part of the state’s economy.
Leonard A. (Len) Blackwell II is a former chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. He has practiced law in Gulfport since 1966.