Casino Gambling

Biloxi set to party like it’s 1999 for Beau Rivage’s 20th birthday. Here’s a look back.

People were concerned when the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino opened 20 years ago in 1999.

With its $750 million price tag — the largest ever investment in Mississippi at that time — 1,740 hotel rooms, a dozen restaurants and thousands of jobs, the casino was bound to have an impact on South Mississippi.

It did bring traffic jams, which turned into a boom for other businesses, and it did initially drain the workforce as more than 4,000 people were hired for the opening.

But it didn’t put the other casinos out of business, as some feared. The Sun Herald reported that Biloxi casino operators said it actually boosted business when people poured in to see the new casino.

The Coast casino market grew from $814 million in 1998 to top $1 billion for the first time in 1999 — a whopping 27 percent increase in a year. The market continued to grow every year until Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“This past year was the first year the property ever broke the $100 million EBITDA threshold,” said Paul Heard, the Beau’s chief financial officer, who has been on the job since before the casino opened. That’s thanks in part to the first sports bets in the state that kicked off Aug. 1 at the Beau Rivage, as well as Gold Strike in Tunica.

Driving south on Interstate 110, “At some point you hit that spot and the Beau is all you can see,” Paul Heard.

“Everybody says this place would fit on the (Vegas) strip,” he said.

But the business climate has changed tremendously since 1999, when Mississippi was one of only a few states with casinos.

“A place like this outside Vegas would probably never be built again,” Heard said.

A grand beginning

Casino mogul Steve Wynn built the Beau Rivage on the site of the bankrupt Biloxi Belle. When it opened, Elizabeth Taylor’s Southern drawl beckoned people to visit in a TV commercial that aired across the Southeast.

The Beau had a towering glass atrium with fully grown magnolia trees, daffodils in a Southern garden, a yacht marina, a “Cirque du Soleil” showroom, a health spa, high-end retail shops and 12 restaurants.

The magnolia trees didn’t grow well and eventually had to be removed. And Heard said the cafe initially was too big and the buffet too small, which also was changed.

The casino opened with 2,000 slot machines and 80 table games, but Wynn said in an interview, “We’re not in the gambling business. We’re in the recreation business. It’s the entertainment that gives the place its life,” he said. He sold Mirage and the Beau Rivage a year later to what is now MGM Resorts International.

Life of the party

The 550 invitations to the opening party were the hottest ticket in town, as guests were treated to a formal dinner, a Kenny Loggins concert and a night at the hotel.

Not all of the hotel rooms were finished for opening night, and the concert was held in the ballroom since the theater wasn’t ready, said Anthony Gibson, executive director of entertainment. He had been a singer with the Platters, the Coasters and other national acts on the road for 21 years and started with the Beau in 1998.

Other opening acts were Harry Connick Jr., Vince Gill, Donna Summer, Alabama and Lionel Richie. Headliners like Taylor Dayne played in areas that seated 350 people, he recalls.

“My easiest player of anyone was Jay Leno,” he said. Leno carried his own luggage, and “all he wanted were two Nathan hot dogs and a bottle of water.”

Some celebrities have asked for sushi they don’t eat and the dressing room to be painted a different color, he said. If it’s not a deal breaker, he’ll instead bring in furniture, rugs and lamps to get the same feeling.

Every summer Gibson co-produces a Cirque-style show that is family friendly and affordable. Daredevil Bello Nock walked a tightrope across the top of the Beau one summer and dangled from a helicopter another summer.

Most performers aren’t there long. “We usually do one-nighters,” he said, but he offers them a room and a meal if they will come a day ahead. Especially with vocalists, if they are more relaxed, “You get a great show.”

The theater seats fewer than 2,000, so he said shows are personal experiences. An agreement with Live Nation and a relationship with the Coast Coliseum allowed them to bring Cher in February to the Coliseum. She stayed at the Beau and is “so wonderfully nice,” he said..

“You know you made it when 12 percent of your audience is dressed up like you,” he said.

Small-town feel

Twenty years later, Gibson said, the Beau still has Southern hospitality and a small-town feel. They’ve hosted community events and fundraisers of all kinds, donated money to local organizations, fed the homeless and cleaned the Coast.

He is one of 289 employees that have been there since the day the Beau opened. There are 324 employees — or about 10 percent of the current staff of 3,000 — have been here since the first year.

They didn’t just open the place once. It took a year to the day to get the Beau Rivage demolished and put back together after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Now its back, and Heard said, “20 years old and looking as striking and beautiful as it did when we opened in 1999.”

Heard said he is proud of how many out-of-state visitors come to the casino.

“The majority of our revenue comes from out-of-state visitors,” he said.

The Beau flies nearly 100,000 people from 80 to 90 different cities a year to South Mississippi aboard Sun Country Airlines, making it the second largest carrier at the airport.

It’s not by design, but “by necessity,” he said. The staff needs to be creative to fill all those hotel rooms on the Biloxi shore.

Time to party

Beau Rivage opened at midnight on March 16, 1999, and exactly 20 years later the community is invited to a day-long celebration on Saturday, March 16, in and around the casino.

The day’s activities kick off at 10 a.m. with Biloxi’s Grillin’ on the Green and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that passes by the Biloxi Town Green starting at 2 p.m.

The free party then moves inside the Beau Rivage atrium from 4-7 p.m. with entertainment and a slice of a huge, celebratory huge cake. Events then move across the street to MGM Park for activities, speeches by the governor and mayor saluting the 20th anniversary, and fireworks by the famed Grucci Brothers over the Beau Rivage.

Here is the day’s schedule:

10 a.m.-5 p.m. — Grillin’ on the Green at the Biloxi Town Green. Free admission, arts and craft vendors, children’s play area, music, BBQ cookoff.

2 p.m. — St. Patrick’s Day Parade begins and passes the Town Green

4-7 p.m. — Party at the Beau Rivage atrium, with free cake beginning at 4:15 p.m. and entertainment by Virtuosa, a classically-trained, all girl string quartet that plays classical music, popular music and high energy dance beats.

5 p.m. — Bounce houses and other free activities at MGM Park.

6-8 p.m. — MGM Park celebration with music by Unfazed. Food vendors for people to buy food and beverages.. Speeches by Gov. Phil Bryant, Biloxi Mayor Andrew “Fo Fo” Gillich and other dignitaries

7:30 p.m. — Grand finale fireworks show by world-renowned Grucci Brothers, known as “America’s First Family of Fireworks.”

Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.