Mississippi casino boats are moving onto dry land - Wednesday 19th of October 2005

Mississippi is betting that casinos will help revitalize the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast. A new law allowing them to rebuild onshore was signed Monday by Gov. Haley Barbour.

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

The new law, approved during a special legislative session earlier this month, allows the casinos to build up to 800 feet inland. Previously, religious conservatives had fought successfully to keep the casinos off dry land.

Barbour said the change will help the casinos, which employ 17,000 people on the coast, come back "a lot bigger and better."

The casinos generated $500,000 a day in state and local taxes before Katrina, according to the state Gaming Commission.

"Theyre a great taxpayer," Barbour told casino executives, local politicians and lawmakers during a ceremony at a job center.

Barbour said the new law clears the way for the gambling giants that operate the casinos to borrow and invest more money along the Mississippi coast, while getting the insurance they need to get up and running again.

Bernie Burkholder, the chief executive and president of Treasure Bay casino, said the law was vital to his returning to the coast.

"For my company, it was literally whether we were going to rebuild again," he said. "This (bill) literally gave the industry the business stability to rebuild."

The state legalized casinos in 1990 but restricted them to the waters of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf Coast casinos accounted for about 45% of Mississippis gaming market; the river casinos made up the other 55%. The new law does not affect the river casinos, which must remain over water.

The old law that restricted casinos to barges had handicapped Mississippis gaming industry from the start, because the big gambling companies couldnt 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 mega-resorts — with more entertainment, shopping and dining options — perhaps turn the Mississippi coast into a national tourist destination.

For the people who manage and work in the casinos, the new law is a relief, said Lisa Misko, 51, a Biloxi resident who worked in the finance department of the Treasure Bay for more than 13 years. Katrina left the Treasure Bays faux pirate ship in tatters.

"This is the livelihood of the Gulf Coast and the rest of Mississippi," Misko said, adding she lobbied her state representatives to ensure the "casinos didnt go away."

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