News stories reporting and reflecting on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina have been commonplace in recent weeks, reminding us both of the steady progress being made in the rebuilding of the U.S. Gulf Coast and the considerable and important work still remaining.
A year ago, just days after the storm, I wrote in this publication that our industry’s first focus would be on locating and assisting the 16,000 gaming industry employees affected by the hurricane, and that our next big challenge would be facilitating the rebuilding process and the economic recovery of our host communities. Today, I am honored to say the gaming industry, as a whole and through the efforts of individual companies, has been a leader in the tremendous efforts to heal and rebuild the Gulf Coast region.
Over the past 12 months, you’ve read my updates on generous employee assistance programs, millions of dollars poured into relief funds, company-operated relief shelters and health centers, and much more our industry has done and is still doing to help industry employees and their families. Life on the Gulf Coast is still a long way from “back to normal,” but it has been considerably improved and preserved due to the Herculean efforts of gaming companies.
The dedication and compassion we have shown in efforts to care for our employees have been matched only by our enthusiasm and commitment to rebuild and reopen the gaming properties located on the Gulf Coast to reinvigorate the economies of our host communities. Last month, the Grand Casino Biloxi with 1,500 employees and the Beau Rivage with 3,800 employees, became the sixth and seventh properties in the Biloxi/Gulfport area to reopen since the storm. Almost all of the casinos damaged in Louisiana also have reopened, and more properties on the Gulf Coast are expected to open later this year.
With thousands of Gulf Coast residents now back to work at our properties – and with a significant portion of those being rehires – the seeds of redevelopment and rejuvenation for this region have been firmly planted. We know that there is more work to be done, but it’s clear that the gaming industry has generated a significant amount of progress in advancing our employees and host communities on the path to recovery.
Much of the progress we have been able to make in the region has been helped by the passage of federal and state legislation designed to support the relief and rebuilding efforts. The federal Gulf Opportunity Zone (GO Zone) Act of 2005, which was passed in December of last year, gave our casinos the opportunity to take advantage of 50 percent bonus depreciation or net operating loss carry-back provisions on all non-gaming amenities, such as hotels, retail, dining, convention areas, parking garages and other portions of the facilities, as well as an employee retention tax credit. While we certainly would have preferred that the legislation allow the same incentive for rebuilding our properties’ gaming areas, we were pleased that our allies on Capitol Hill were able to thwart the efforts of those who would have entirely excluded our industry.
The rebuilding process is being further helped in Mississippi by legislation passed by the state’s legislature in October 2005 which allows casinos along the Gulf Coast to build onshore up to 800 feet inland. Properties in Mississippi have taken this important opportunity not only to rebuild, but to add a host of new amenities, ranging from golf courses to full-service spas, that will improve the quality of the facilities and therefore attract more visitors to the Gulf Coast. These federal and state legislative initiatives have helped to clear some of the hurdles in the rebuilding process, but it has been our industry’s commitment to our employees and our communities that has sped the process along.
Despite this important progress, there are still significant hurdles to overcome before the Gulf Coast can completely recover. The construction and development of affordable housing for low- and middle-income families is a crucial priority that remains largely unaddressed. FEMA trailers are still the predominant housing in many Gulf Coast communities, as issues surrounding flood insurance, new construction requirements, the increasing cost of supplies and labor, and more continue to pose significant barriers for residents in the region who hope to rebuild.
Some of our companies already are working to help employees with their housing situations. Just one example is the Harrah’s New Orleans, which has been raising money since late May as part of its “Harrah’s Employees Rebuilding Our Own” (HERO2) program. The program consists of employee volunteers who will raise money and help to rebuild the homes of fellow employees. In June, the HERO2 program raffled off a $15,000 value professional home refurbishment, which was donated by a local contractor. Money raised from the raffle and through other efforts was put to good use last month as the HERO2 volunteers began work on their first residence. The program is overseen by a full-time housing coordinator hired by Harrah’s New Orleans earlier this year who also is providing employees with important information about housing and rebuilding possibilities in the area and organizing housing fairs that include local real estate agents, property management professionals and FEMA representatives.
Other companies figuring prominently in the region, including Boyd Gaming Corporation, Isle of Capri Casinos, MGM MIRAGE, Penn National Gaming and others also are working on innovative solutions to help their employees and other members of the community address the housing crisis. But there is still much work to be done, and it will take coordination between federal, state and private resources to ensure the residents of the Gulf Coast region are able to rebuild their homes and their lives.
As our industry has been an important leader in the rebuilding efforts this past year, I have no doubt we will continue to be involved in helping to find solutions to important issues such as housing and transportation that have not yet been fully resolved. The past year has been filled with hard work and hope, and the incredible efforts of our companies, employees and patrons have been a testament to the continuing strength and dedication of our industry. The hard work is not yet behind us, but I am confident we will continue our efforts until the job is truly done.