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Voices of Biloxi - Mayor A.J. Holloway

The Mayor Talks About Tragedy, Revival, and Gaming in his Gulf Coast Community

Biloxi Mayor A.J. HollowayHurricane Katrina decimated the town of Biloxi and caused billions of dollars in damage on Aug. 29, 2005. That left Mayor A.J. Holloway with a crisis on his hands and a chance to rebuild for future generations. He called the rebuilding process the "Revival of the Renaissance," and started to put the pieces of the community back together. City Hall in downtown Biloxi is a modern-day fortress. Three stories of solid marble that would be able to stand up to much worse storms than Katrina, this is where the office of the mayor sits, on the second floor. This is where he orchestrated the communities' recovery with his hard-working staff. This is also where Card Player caught up with Mayor Holloway to talk about the tragedy, the rebuilding, and the importance the casino industry played in the process.

Card Player: How important is the casino industry, in your eyes, to the recovery efforts?

Mayor Holloway: I don't know where we would be without the casinos. I think we would be in really, really bad shape. They came back and they've got 18,000 people employed on the Gulf Coast. We've got revenue coming to our tax base, and it's bigger than it was before Katrina, as far as from the casinos. So, it means a lot to the city, it means a lot to the coast, and it means a lot to the state. If the trend continues as it's going now, we will do over a billion dollars in gross revenue just in the city of Biloxi.

CP: Is it true that the casino industry accounts for one-third of the revenue in town?

MH: It was 35 percent before Katrina; now, it's probably more than that, maybe 40 percent. The sales tax is generating 22 percent. Of course, the sales tax was down during the first year. The sales tax is slowing coming back, but it's not where it should be. See ... Biloxi is a hospitality industry, and all of the restaurants on Highway 90 … all of those are gone. Just about 50 percent of the mom-and-pop rooms are back up.

CP: How much of the casino industry revenue was used for quality-of-life improvements, both before and after the storm?

MH: I was on the city council four years before the casinos were legalized, and before that we couldn't pay our bills. In fact, some people had to take a pay cut. Schools were doing well, as far as academics, but we weren't building any new schools. We built a new state-of-the-art high school for $40 million. We built three new elementary schools and remodeled all of the others. Our recreation programs dropped all the fees that the students had to pay to play different sports, like little league baseball. Public safety and crime weren't issues here … if you look at our crime statistics, we're one of the safest cities in the state. We had the resources to train our public safety (personnel); they have all of the equipment they need.

CP: How close is Biloxi to a full recovery?

MH: We're not back by a long shot; we still have a long ways to go. I don't know what's going to happen to the restaurants on Highway 90, a lot of those locations are now condos. The new development is taking place up on the higher land, by Cedar Lake Road, off of Interstate 10. We've got two new banks going in, strip malls, and several restaurants there.

CP: How did the individual casinos help out right after the storm?

MH: One example is that, after the storm, every casino paid its employees salaries for three to six months. Some of them were back open as early as December, within four months. The casinos, right after the storm, gave food away from their freezers. They gave big truck-loads full to the city; we had to get some refrigerated trucks to hold it all.

CP: What does it mean for an event like the World Poker Tour to come in after Katrina? Is it symbolic of how things are coming back bigger and better now?

MH: I think so, I'm sure it's going to bring in a lot of media and get a lot of coverage. And that's good, that's what we need. We still need some help.

CP: What are the largest obstacles that need to be overcome before a full recovery?

MH: In my opinion, there are several things really holding back our full recovery. There are four things really hurting us. The elevation with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] has not yet been settled, and a lot of people are waiting for that before they rebuild their houses. The other thing is the insurance; the price of insurance is going up. The price of construction is going up as well as the price of land. The real estate is just going out of sight, and that's what's hurting a lot of affordable housing companies. Because of the real estate, construction, and insurance, they have to ask for fifteen hundred dollars a month for rent. It's hard for the average working person to afford … In some places, especially casino property, they're asking for anywhere from $75 to $150 per square foot.

CP: Where do you see the casino resort industry five to 10 years from now?

MH: I'm predicting that in 10 to 15 years you'll see anywhere from 18 to 22 casinos in Biloxi. What I would like to see is for us to build up our critical mass … have these casinos around all the conventional industries … residential, retail.

CP: Throughout history, cities have had large catastrophes devastate their communities - the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the great fire in Chicago, and in this region it's Hurricane Katrina. How will people look back on how the Gulf Coast was able to bounce back from the storm and rebuild?

MH: I hope they will look at it very favorably, and I think that they will see that each city on the coast has its own niche. Biloxi is the oldest city on the coast, and it has always had gaming … Biloxi has always been about hospitality and gaming. Pascagoula is heavy industry; Gulfport is large retail and industry on the seaway; Ocean Springs is in the arts, and it's a commuter community; Long Beach is the same way. Biloxi's niche has been hospitality and it always will be, along with Keesler Air Force Base. So, we'll always be around, and I think you'll see the same thing for years to come.

CP: How much of the town's revenue is generated by Keesler Air Force Base?

MH: They're responsible for close to a billion dollars of economic impact in Southern Mississippi. The difference is that the casinos pay the higher taxes.

CP: There is always a question of morality when gambling is involved in the conversation. Does it bring more benefits to a community than harm? Do you think the benefits that the casino resort industry has brought to Biloxi will show some of the helpful effects gaming can bring to a community?

MH: I definitely know some people who have gotten themselves into some trouble with gambling. I've seen people let go from their jobs for embezzlement because of gambling. So, just how bad it is, who knows … There's no doubt about that it does more good than it does harm.