25-year evolution of South Mississippi casinos
People started lining up at Point Cadet early in the morning on Aug. 1, 1992, to get inside the first casino in Mississippi.
While free Champagne flowed inside the Isle of Capri, outside the line kept getting longer. The new staff even brought water and towels to people waiting outside for three hours in 90-degree heat for their turn to step aboard the riverboat.
“They waited. They sweltered. They gambled,” is how the Sun Herald reported it, now 25 years ago.
State Sen. Tommy Gollott tossed out the first dice and crapped out with a seven. Joe Creel, chairman of the Biloxi Port Commission, played the first slot machine and lost his token.
And so the booming industry began.
Before that, in the 23 years since Hurricane Camille in 1969, Biloxi had become “a tourist town without tourists.” The city was broke, said former Mayor A.J. Holloway, with no money to meet payroll or even fill a pothole. Casinos brought tourists, prosperity and jobs to the Coast.
President Casino opened in Biloxi two weeks after the Isle of Capri. The $17 million, football-field size floating casino was owned by John Connelly, a colorful promoter who worked as a boxer, the Sun Herald noted. Connelly said he started building the boat months before dockside gambling was approved in Harrison County in March 1992, and without any definite plans on where it would dock.
Hurricanes were a threat to Mississippi’s casino industry right from the start. Just three weeks after opening, the Isle of Capri and President were closed Aug. 25 as Hurricane Andrew obliterated part of Florida and moved into the Gulf of Mexico. Biloxi Belle, the third casino to open on the Coast, debuted Aug. 28 — after the threat from the hurricane passed.
With Mississippi smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, some claimed the hurricane was a sign the state didn’t need casinos. But the numbers show people didn’t stay away. For the five months casinos were open in Mississippi in 1992, gross casino revenue totaled $122 million. Expectations were for casinos to be a $150 million-a-year industry in the state, said Tim Hinkley with Isle of Capri.
The second year revenue was six times higher at $790 million. The third year, when the state started reporting revenue by region, Coast casino revenue alone reached $727 million. The Coast surpassed $1 billion in 1999, the year Beau Rivage Resort & Casino opened, and was $1.26 billion last year.
Mississippi did it right, people in the industry say, and did so with Southern hospitality.
In honor of the anniversary, here are 25 memories from 25 years of casinos on the Coast:
1. Locals win big
Locals often say out-of-towners are the ones who win big, but two of the three largest jackpots in Coast history were won by locals. A Gulfport man hit the largest slot jackpot when he won $14.4 million playing the dollar Wheel of Fortune slot machine at Hard Rock Casino Biloxi in March 2009. In May 2003, an unemployed Mobile man won the second biggest jackpot of $13.8 million, which he hit at Isle of Capri while playing the Jeopardy quarter machine. Just two months earlier, in March 2003, a Gulfport couple won $12.8 million on Megabucks at Treasure Bay Casino. It was the largest Megabucks jackpot won outside Las Vegas at the time. In 25 years, players have won 11 jackpots of $5 million or more at Coast casinos and 24 jackpots of $2 million or more.
2. Can’t count it fast enough
Oversight of the money made at Mississippi casinos originally was under the direction of the state Department of Revenue, “which is where I was,” said Allen Godfrey, now executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. Splash Casino in Tunica opened in October 1992 and had to close within a week or two, he said, because they couldn’t count the money fast enough.
Hinkley recalls how the Isle of Capri banker, Chevis Swetman with The Peoples Bank in Biloxi, had to make an emergency cash delivery at night on opening weekend. It became routine in the early years that casinos would open for a couple of days then close for at least 48 hours for the auditors to check the accounting system and to make sure the games were working properly. The cash flow wasn’t all positive, however. Some residents developed a gambling addiction and lost their money and their families.
3. Themes and ‘a lifelike jiggle’
Ten casinos opened in the first four years, and to distinguish themselves, the operators began introducing themes. Boomtown went western with cowboy boot carpeting and mock town storefronts, one of which had a sign reading “Grabem, Chokom & Runn, attorneys at law.” Casino Magic used fountains, colored lights and music to give a magical feel. Treasure Bay took it over the top, creating a Caribbean pirate ship moored at a fort.
“Let’s face it. Everyone has dreamed of being a high-seas pirate at one time or another,” said then-CEO of Treasure Bay Bernie Burkholder. The Sun Herald reported that upon entering the casino, patrons were greeted by a cast of “animatronic’’characters, including a pirate, two parrots “and a wench with silicone implants to give her chest a lifelike jiggle.”
4. The missing mermaid
The Treasure Bay pirate ship was about 400 feet long, from the nose of the bow’s mermaid (named Camilla) to the stern. The ship was intended to be taller, but that would have put it in the flight path of Keesler Air Force Base. When the ship was demolished after Hurricane Katrina, Camilla floated into history, too.
“Unfortunately, the company who dismantled the boat took it,” said Susan Varnes, Treasure Bay general manager.
5. Which casino is taller?
Probably the biggest controversy in 25 years came when Ralph Engelstad built two extra floors on the Imperial Palace Casino.
“He was so astounded by the outcry that occurred from that,” said his attorney, Britt Singletary.
Engelstad didn’t understand why the city would be mad because he would pay an extra $8,000 per floor each year in taxes, and building inspectors had already conducted 88 inspections on those two floors. But Biloxi officials threatened to make him remove them.
Engelstad maintained he didn’t really put two floors on top, he put them in the middle.
“His whole goal there was that the Imperial Palace would be taller than the Beau Rivage,” Singletary said. “He hated Steve Wynn and Wynn hated him,” he said, which goes back to a flap over land in Las Vegas. What Engelstad and Wynn didn’t know, Singletary said, was Keesler had put a new flight pattern over both hotels. “That had not existed when we started construction,” he said.
In a never-before-told story involving what he calls some of the best lawyering of his career, Singletary said he found a solution. Through Rep. Benny Thompson, he got in touch with the director of the Federal Aviation Administration, who had been bombarded with letters from Biloxi. It was determined Keesler had not asked the FAA for permission to put in the flight pattern over the two hotels, he said. In the end, the fine per floor was a little over $13,000 and Engelstad wrote a check for about $27,000.
Controversy remains over which casino is taller, but Singletary said, “Ralph Engelstad’s dead and Steve Wynn’s moved on. I don’t know what difference it makes now.”
6. Dragons and erupting volcanoes
The erupting volcano at Scarlet Pearl Casino’s miniature golf course in D’Iberville wasn’t the first. The Asian Dragon of Good Fortune at Lady Luck Casino in Biloxi was a $4 million spectacle built by the Florida company (called Fantastic Fountains) that built the Dancing Bears at Disney World, musical fountains at Grand and Treasure Bay casinos and the water show at Casino Magic. The dragon show could be seen every hour or so.
“It breathes fire, roars, glows in the dark, swims into the lagoon, breaks into the temple. It makes a number of different moves. Its tentacles reach and grasp and grab,” Fantastic Fountains president Ed Dodd said. The dragon was 39 feet long, weighed 19,400 pounds and the volcano above the temple burned 152 gallons of fuel with each eruption.
7. Kid-friendly casinos
Coast casinos were more kid-friendly before Hurricane Katrina. People still talk about the lazy river pool at Grand Casino Gulfport and the big arcades. Kids’ Quest at Grand Gulfport delighted kids with Lego blocks, Barbies and a ball crawl while parents played at the casino or shared a quiet dinner. Imperial Palace had Ippy’s Fun Zone and Cinema 6 movie theater.
Boomtown Biloxi had a popular arcade and in 1997 introduced the Motion Theatre, a five-minute simulator ride that took thrill seekers to “Dino Island,” to explore prehistoric plant-life, dark caves, rivers of lava and dinosaurs. Other adventures were “Days of Thunder” NASCAR experience, an old mining site in an active volcano, a Star Fighter flying at terrifying speeds through an underground world in pursuit of a villain, a runaway train, a bobsled run and a desert dune buggy duel. The seats shook and dipped to simulate motion and a ride cost $2.50 when the attraction opened.
8. Shunned by Vegas
When the casinos opened, it was Bernie Goldstein from Iowa who opened Isle of Capri, Marlin Torguson from Minnesota operating Casino Magic and Lyle Berman from Minnesota at the Grand Casinos who built up the industry. Las Vegas operators had little interest in the Coast in the beginning and instead invested in Tunica.
Jack Binion said in May, when he spoke at the Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi, he wished he had chosen Biloxi for his Horseshoe Casino instead of the river counties. Larry Gregory, president of the Mississippi Gaming & Hospitality Association and former executive director of the Gaming Commission, said these men were visionaries.
“They saw something that truthfully none of us saw — what could be,” he said.
9. Beau Rivage changes the game
“The Mississippi Gulf Coast is about to get into another league,” Mirage Resorts chairman Steve Wynn said as he prepared to open the Beau Rivage. He spent $700 million building the 34-story, 1,780-room hotel and casino with 12 restaurants, a spa, a promenade of shops, theater and marina.
“It’s the most elegant thing we’ve ever done,” Wynn said. He reportedly planned the name Beau Rivage, which means “beautiful view,” for a hotel in Las Vegas, but changed his plans when he saw the Biloxi waterfront. People who see it for the first time still ask, “This is in Biloxi?”
10. Indoor magnolias?
Wynn paid a Texas contractor thousands of dollars to buy magnolia trees out of people’s yards and bring them to the construction site, the Sun Herald reported. The glass atrium at the Beau Rivage was built around the trees.
Actress Elizabeth Taylor in television commercials coaxed potential tourists to come smell the magnolias, but the trees didn’t fare well inside. Gardeners tried to adjust lighting and watering to sync with the seasons, and leaves were stapled and wired to the trees until a solution could be found. A year after opening, when MGM Grand took over the Beau Rivage, workers cut the trees and replaced them with ficus allii trees grown specifically for hotel lobbies. Sixteen years later, the giant oak tree inside Scarlet Pearl Casino was totally manufactured.
11. Secrets in the Hard Rock attic
On lucky 7/7/07 — two years after originally planned thanks to Hurricane Katrina — dignitaries and celebrities gathered beneath the huge Hard Rock Biloxi guitar sign that survived the storm and smashed guitars in brand tradition to officially open the resort. Hard Rock was just days from opening when the hurricane hit in 2005, destroying the casino barge and damaging the hotel. Some of the rock and roll memorabilia was lost, but Elvis’ military uniform was found in the Mississippi Sound and a Waffle House waitress retrieved and returned a vintage guitar autographed by Johnny Cash.
A green and gold electric guitar that belonged to Dimebag Darrell of the band Pantera was found in the water, still in its display case. Muddied from its encounter in the waves, the case was hung “as is” on the wall of Hard Rock Café. Despite a plaque that tells its story, customers still ask why the display isn’t cleaned.
Up in the attic, where only employees are allowed, is a sort of time capsule that tells the story of how the casino resort was built — twice. T-shirts sent by Hard Rock properties worldwide arrived with messages like “Wishing you guys a fresh start” from Montreal.
12. Katrina’s wrath
Things were humming for Coast tourism when Katrina hit and closed every casino. Barges were tossed on the highway and north of U.S. 90. Gregory, who just a week before had surgery to remove a brain tumor, climbed aboard a helicopter with then-Gov. Haley Barbour to survey the damage.
“We flew over every one,” of the casinos he said, and thought of the investment in dollars, time and energy it took to build and open each. He also wondered how they would come back.
Many of the companies paid their employees’ salaries while the casinos were rebuilt. Imperial Palace, now IP Casino Biloxi, was the first to open in December, four months after the storm. Gregory said he was carded by the National Guard just to get to the casino the day before opening, and he wondered who would come.
“Then the doors opened and wow!” he said. Hours later he went up to his hotel room and from the window saw cars backed up the length of Interstate 110 to I-10, just waiting to get in. The Isle of Capri opened a few days later, followed by most of the others. The Beau Rivage was restored and reopened on the first anniversary of Katrina.
13. Good luck charm
Gamblers are known to play the same slot machine (at the end of the aisle, close to the bathroom), follow the same routine and carry lucky charms. Because of these superstitions, IP Casino Biloxi is one of the few casinos with a 13th floor. Most elevator buttons skip from floor 12 to 14.
14. Golden coins
“I walk into casinos today and I still hear those coins,” said Gregory. “There was a magic about the sound that they made. It was very attractive to customers.”
There’s a lot of scientific study behind the sound of casino coins dropping, he said, and recordings are projected by the machines even after Katrina, when the Coast casinos switched to paper tickets. “It’s so much faster,” he said, especially when the casinos are closing for hurricanes.
16. Over-the-top bathrooms
It wasn’t the hotel rooms as much as the bathrooms people remarked on when they stayed at Grand Casino Biloxi. The ladies’ restroom on the second floor was the most flamboyant on the Coast, with 37 stalls, each with an oval photo of a 1900s woman on the door, marble floors, a flowered ceiling, bird cages, bottles of perfume, ironed linens and chandeliers. It cost $500,000 more than a standard restroom.
16. Raking in the tax money
Mississippi casinos have paid more than $6 billion in taxes on casino revenue in 25 years. Coast casinos also pay millions every year in property tax, sales tax, wage tax and use taxes. The cities, school districts and first responders all benefit. Biloxi schools quickly bought computers for all the classrooms when the casino revenue started coming in, and many cities used the proceeds to buy new fire trucks and police cruisers. Not everything has worked out. Biloxi’s been trying since 1999 to complete the road loop around the eastern peninsula and still is short of money.
17. Play by the rules
Gov. Kirk Fordice put in place Gaming Commissioners known for their honesty, integrity and character, said Gregory, which in turn inspired operators to say, “I’ve got faith that this may work.” All who’ve entered the game in Mississippi were required to play by the rules. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and billionaire investor Carl Icahn personally came to Mississippi to get approved by the commission, and give a bit of insight, when they opened casinos.
18. Musical attraction
Buffett played his first professional gig at a nightclub in Biloxi before there were casinos, but most of the stars who have performed on the Coast came because of the casinos. The theaters at casinos are smaller than many venues the stars play, providing a more intimate setting. Plus, celebrities often are seen seen playing at the blackjack tables and eating at the restaurants.
19. Diversified portfolio
Since Katrina, the Coast casinos have focused on opening a variety of restaurants, nightlife, spas, golf courses, amenities and promotions that appeal mostly to adults. Although Emeril Lagasse’s Gulf Coast Fish House and Todd English’s Olives have closed, Hard Rock Casino has Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Golden Nugget Casino has Morton’s The Steakhouse for those who want a taste of high-end chain restaurants. Regional celebrity chef Kelly English is incorporating local ingredients and getting rave reviews at Magnolia House at Harrah’s Gulf Coast Casino. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and other top golfers have designed casino golf courses that consistently are ranked near the top nationwide, and Hollywood Casino has the only on-site course.
20. Smokin — or not
A layer of smoke could be seen above the crowd in the early casinos before ventilation systems helped clear the air. Management of Palace Casino took a bold step after an expansion in 2011 and made the casino, hotel, restaurants and sports bar smoke-free. General Manager Keith Crosby said nearly 80 percent of the public does not smoke, “and this decision will allow us to maintain our fresh air quality, creating a healthier, cleaner and more enjoyable environment for everyone.” Most other Coast casinos have a non-smoking section. Gulfport has restricted smoking in restaurants and other areas of the resort, but Biloxi officials have continued to make smoking at the discretion of the casinos and their customers.
21. Jobs with benefits
In the four years after casinos opened, they created 12,500 jobs statewide and tourism grew from 1.6 million visitors in 1992 to 6.5 million in 1996. Each casino that opened offered 10 cents more an hour, said Godfrey, and employees jumped from property one to another. These were jobs that brought medical benefits, something locals didn’t have at the seafood plants or restaurants. Mississippi is no longer the country’s third-biggest market since states with higher populations opened casinos, but the Coast remains near the top for employing the most casino and hotel employees. There are still 250 fewer casino hotel rooms than before Katrina, but 200 more people employed. In June, the 12 Coast casinos reported having 9,500 non-hotel employees.
22. The people
They came from Atlantic City, Las Vegas and points in between to help build an industry. As a Yankee, Tim Hinkley talks about being totally welcomed by the community and employees who worked for him at Isle of Capri. “It’s been fun. I can tell you that,” said Rich Westfall, who grew up in Texas and came down from Iowa with the Isle of Capri riverboats. He had 100 chances to move away and never did. “I get to live here,” he said, and he and his wife raised two kids on the Coast.
23. Help arrives
The casinos were generous with their time, talent and money right from the start. Executives and their staff donated blood, supported United Way, helped organize Cruisin’ The Coast, which has grown into the largest event in Mississippi, and volunteered at countless events.
“Quite honestly, my most fond memories over the last 25 years have been working alongside colleagues and team members at those types of events — laying wreaths at the veterans’ cemetery, cleaning a stretch of the beach, shopping for gifts for children at Christmas, jogging to the finish line at the Heart Walk, playing in charity slot tournaments and sporting events,” said Susan Varnes, general manager at Treasure Bay. “I could go on and on, but those are the moments I will always cherish the most.”
24. Dreams dashed
Count them up and there were more casinos proposed and never built than actually opened in South Mississippi. The proposed developments came with pretty pictures, grand ideas and names like Havana, Tivoli, Blue Water, CanCan, Paradise Bay, Oyster Bay, Royal D’Iberville, Billy Bob Barnett’s Wild Wild West Casino, Castle Beach and a $2 billion casino resort in Gulfport with an indoor ski slope.
Now-President Donald Trump even tried joining the game by opening casinos at the harbor in Gulfport and then in Diamondhead, but left without the deal. He instead built casinos in Atlantic City.
25. Southern hospitality
An immediate response to the new casinos was an increase in flights at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. The casinos, particularly the Beau Rivage, continue to bring in charter flights from cities across the country. Many who have visited or moved to South Mississippi remark on the warm welcome they receive. Godfrey said he recalls talking to an early Boomtown employee who had moved from Atlantic City and in just a couple weeks already had three ladies bringing him pies.
“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” he told Godfrey. It’s not one of the amenities people find at most jobs or casinos, but what has helped sustain the Coast casino industry for 25 years.
Coast casino hotels before and after Katrina
Average daily rate
Mississippi Gaming Commission