D'IBERVILLE -- The doors to the city's first casino and South Mississippi's 12th opened shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday and thousands of people poured in, eager for a first look around.
They were greeted with strings of pearly-white Mardi Gras beads and a cup of bubbly champagne. They passed by the restaurants and hurried to check out the 1,300 slot machines.
"There's a lot of new (slots) we've never heard of," said Sandra Black of D'Iberville, who grew up in the neighborhood, east of Interstate 110 and overlooking Back Bay.
"We needed this," she said of the $290 million casino that employs 1,200 people.
Scarlet Pearl has 300 hotel rooms, including 56 suites and 10 penthouse suites. It also boasts four restaurants, an events center, a swimming pool and a 36-hole miniature golf course with waterfalls and an erupting volcano.
A family affair
In his opening remarks, owner Bob Granier introduced his wife, Delores, and daughter Dana and acknowledged the work of his son Rob to get the casino built.
Where they come from in Pennsylvania, government officials put up roadblocks to development, he said before the ribbon-cutting. "In D'Iberville, they put out pathways."
Celebrating with D'Iberville were the mayors of Biloxi and Gulfport, the two cities in Harrison County with casinos, Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich told D'Iberville Mayor Rusty Quave, "Welcome to the club." Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes said Scarlet Pearl is "such a great addition to our Coast casinos, and it's great for the economy."
D'Iberville has worked for more than 20 years and through three city managers to get a casino. Quave, who led the effort, said it's been an incredible year watching the Scarlet Pearl rise. It was designed by Nory Hazaveh with SOSH Architects and built by Roy Anderson Corp. of Gulfport.
Playing a part
When gambling was legalized in Mississippi in the early 1990s, Harrison County had a referendum and Quave said D'Iberville voters approved gambling by 65 percent.
"It took two votes actually to get it approved," he said, "and if it wouldn't have been for (D'Iberville's) 65 percent, Harrison County would have not been approved for gaming. We always felt we were a big part of the approval of casinos."
The casino's pre-Christmas opening gives the staff a chance to correct any issues before one of the busiest weeks of the year, between Christmas and New Year's Day, said LuAnn Pappas, the new chief executive officer at the casino.
The opening-day parking problem is being resolved. Pappas said a parking garage is in the plans and City Manager Bobby Eleuterius said casino employees will park away from the casino and be shuttled to work by Coast Transit Authority.
Some of the first visitors were also unhappy with long lines for player-club cards and the lack of left-handed slot machines.
But the most frequent comment was "beautiful."
Shiny and new
Beyond the aesthetics are what the casino brings to the city, Councilman Joey Bosarge said. "This puts us on a whole other level. D'Iberville's a destination city now."
Wednesday's grand opening comes 10 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city's Old Town, where Scarlet Pearl now sits. Originally proposed as Can Can Casino, the project survived the recession but a missed deadline to build under the former requirements of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
The name was changed and after the July 2014 ground-breaking, the project was built to the new standards. It has the exact 300 hotel rooms required and a 68,000-square-foot casino, larger than the 40,000-square-foot minimum. The restaurants exceed the minimum seating and Lava Links 36-hole miniature golf course satisfies the Gaming Commission's mandate that every new casino bring a new amenity to the market.
Many staff members left other Coast casinos for opportunities at the new casino.
"That's our market," said Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. "That's our system."
He recalled the opening of Harlow's Casino in northern Mississippi and the crowd that greeted the new casino with a mad rush on opening day.
"This reminds me of that enthusiasm," he said of Scarlet Pearl's ribbon-cutting.
Perhaps the person most moved by Wednesday's opening was Bob Higginbotham, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which once stood on the Scarlet Pearl site. He choked up while giving the invocation and recalled "the perseverance of so many people to make this happen." He said many who did all they could to make the casino a reality in D'Iberville died before they could see it open.