I told my friends I was going to Biloxi for the weekend and they said, "What for?" Before the "Big Awakening," Biloxi and sister city Gulfport were sleepy Mississippi Gulf Coast towns, known for their Gulf shrimp and air force base. But in just a few short years, the area has become the country's hottest casino destination. And the transformation is just beginning.
Between 1992 and 1996, more than 12 casinos opened, attracting the attention of Las Vegas casino developers. For instance, the 1,088-room Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino opened this past December with 20,000 square feet of meeting space, an 800-seat production showroom, and a first-class health spa, among other amenities. And Mirage Resorts' 1,800-room Beau Rivage Casino Hotel is slotted to debut in late 1998. The $550 million resort will feature 85,000 square feet of casino space, a 1,400-seat showroom, a marina, and 30,000 square feet of convention space. Meanwhile, Grand Casinos is adding 500 rooms to its 500 room resort in Biloxi, and 600 rooms in 11 buildings (with three acres of pool and water areas) to its 400-room Gulfport hotel. Both projects are expected to becompleted this year.
Proposals include a 1,300-room Circus Circus hotel casino, an 850-room Harrah's, as well as a Hilton and a Millimax property. Moreover, four separate casinos with as many as 6,000 hotel rooms have been proposed in a $2.6 billion project for Deer Island, just off the Biloxi peninsula.
A group of association meeting planners and trade journalists visited the area in November to celebrate the opening of the 80,000-square-foot expansion to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum and Convention Center. The multipurpose facility now has 125,000-square-feet of contiguous space and can host banquets for 7,500 people. "We have basically doubled our capacity and opened a whole new market for this facility," remarked Bill Holmes, the center's executive director.
Before hosting a gourmet meal at the convention center, Holmes gave us a peek at the hometown hockey team battling arch rivals from Alabama in the attached 9,500-seat coliseum. Also that weekend, we enjoyed VIP viewing of the American Power Boat races, which will now be held annually in Gulfport/Biloxi, with its 26-mile stretch of white sand beach. Our group sampled other local attractions, including a tour of the wonderful Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant, whose walls are filled with memorabilia from patrons like presidents Reagan and Kennedy.
Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, pointed out that the Mississippi Gulf Coast is benefiting in very positive ways from the casino development boom: County and city budgets get a share of revenue from casino profits for use in infrastructure development and improvements. Regarding planners' traditional challenge at casino destinations (not being able to get hotel rooms over a weekend), Richer was confident. "We have gotten everything we've asked for so far," he said. "We can get room blocks over a Saturday night."
The Gulf Coast certainly represents excellent value, with average room rate of $65 and a three percent room tax. Richer said he expected air carriers to expand service into the area following the leap in hotel inventory.--Regina McGee