Gambling with Biloxi
By Labor Day 2006, the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, had been built for $550 million and was open for business. In this article, originally published in the August 2007 issue of The Progressive, Tim Shorrock explains why the casino industry is the only one in the region having an easy time of it post-Katrina.
Image: Rebuilding, Inc.
Tim Shorrock

You can still see the devastation as you approach Biloxi from the east on U.S. Highway 90. The drive takes your breath away: All the homes, museums, and motels that used to line Beach Drive are gone. Only cement slabs remain. A few of the oak trees along the route survived, however, and between them you can see the FEMA trailers where more than 30,000 survivors still live.

In the wake of Katrina, people with money literally began walking the streets, offering to buy pieces of property for casino and condominium development.

Then you see it, towering above the desolation: the spectacularly garish Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, a subsidiary of MGM Mirage and one of the largest casinos in the United States. Badly damaged during Katrina, it was quickly rebuilt in time for Labor Day in 2006 for $550 million. It has thirty-two stories, spacious restaurants, big-time Southern entertainment, and a spa. It is one of seven casinos that have reopened in Biloxi since Katrina. While residents scramble to find the resources to rebuild, the casinos are drawing in thousands of gamblers from surrounding states like Georgia and Texas. These visitors don't even have to see the wreckage of the town; from Interstate 10 they can drive straight into the Beau's parking lot on I-110, a state-subsidized thruway that ends one block from the casino. The Hard Rock casino, next door to the Beau, just opened in early July. Plans are in the works for twenty more casinos in the next ten years.

The casinos began their push immediately after the storm. Less than eight weeks after Katrina, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour called the state legislature back for an extraordinary session. It passed a new law that allowed casinos to be built on land as long as they were within 800 feet of the coast. The gambling industry had long sought this legislation. Instantly, every piece of land within a mile of Mississippi's coast became a hot commodity. Developers and promoters, sensing potential gold in real estate and retail deals, promised new investments of $20 billion to $30 billion in the area compared to the $3 billion to $6 billion planned before Katrina. Casino interests believe Biloxi will be a $4 billion gaming market by 2010.

This vision, however, has no place for most of the survivors in the eastern end of Biloxi, a mixed neighborhood of Vietnamese, Anglos and African Americans that is often compared to New Orleans' Ninth Ward in terms of its ethnicity and diversity. Their land near the coastline is the area most coveted by the casino and real estate interests.

"This is all about the money," says Bill Stallworth, the only African American on Biloxi's city council and the representative from Ward Two, which encompasses most of East Biloxi. Stallworth, a former high school teacher and computer technician, is leading the fight against the developers on behalf of those who want to keep their homes and neighborhoods. But it is difficult. "People are getting to the point that panic is setting in," he says.

In the days after Katrina, Stallworth was instrumental in creating the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center. The center was necessary because FEMA took eight weeks to set up a presence in East Biloxi. Right after the storm, National Guard troops moved in throughout the area, but FEMA and the Red Cross set up sites only in the more affluent, and relatively undamaged, area of West Biloxi near Keesler Air Force Base. Stallworth is still upset about the delay. "It was absolutely horrible," he says.

In the wake of Katrina, people with money literally began walking the streets, offering to buy pieces of property for casino and condominium development. In February, I met Johnis Ross, a local resident who'd been living in a house near the main thoroughfare linking the Beau with the Imperial Palace, a casino on the north end. Her land is now prime real estate, and her neighbor, who is working with a development company, has sold his property and is trying to persuade his neighbors to do the same. "It's the thruway for the casinos, so they really want it," she told me. "I just keep telling him no." On Biloxi's former main drag, Howard Street, someone pointed out to me a small market once owned by a Vietnamese family that chose to leave. The property, at most three rooms and almost falling apart, sold for $900,000. Its value lay in its proximity to the water, just 300 yards away.

Government has added to the pressure on local residents. FEMA issued an advisory that raised the flood plain in Biloxi by as much as twenty-three feet, which means that people wanting to construct new houses must build that much higher. The city council approved this requirement in February over the objections of Stallworth and George Lawrence, who represents the other ward in East Biloxi. They argued that the new floodplain, which will add at least $25,000 to building costs, creates an impossible barrier for local residents, 75 percent of whom were making less than $35,000 a year before the storm.

But that wasn't all. After Congress approved millions of dollars in Community Development Block Grants for Mississippi, Governor Barbour lobbied to remove a stipulation in the law that 50 percent of the money go to low-income people. The money, he ruled, would be provided only to homeowners with insurance and outside of the flood zone. That has effectively blocked most of East Biloxi's residents from gaining access to the grants.

"It's a way to lose the local residents that gave the area its personality and character," says Jeff Balins, an independent environmental consultant who relocated back to the area from Boston so he could play a part in the rebuilding.

Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway, who is in his fourth term, is a major booster of casino and condo development, and the majority of the city council supports him. Last fall, the council approved a development plan drafted by Living Cities, a community investment fund financed by major banks and insurance companies. It envisions a belt of casinos and retail sites around Biloxi, followed by "mixed-income" housing that some residents fear will leave the poor out. The plan calls for a new park in the middle of the city—seemingly a nice idea, but it takes up most of the low-land area where the Vietnamese community is concentrated. The council reluctantly supported the proposal because, without adopting some kind of plan, the city would be ineligible to apply for federal or state aid.

The people of Biloxi aren't necessarily opposed to casinos; they just want basic needs met. "I favor balanced development," says Thao Vu, a Vietnamese American who lost her home and now works as a case manager for a service organization called Boat People SOS. "We need public housing, and affordable homes."

Her comments were echoed by Sharon Hanshaw, the executive director of Coastal Women for Change, which was started by local women after the storm and is funded, in part, by the Ms. Foundation for Women. The greatest need here, she says, is affordable housing and day care centers. She believes the developers and their allies in local government think they can wait the people out. "The game plan is, you get tired of fighting till you give up."

One of the biggest needs is housing for people working in the casinos. If enough affordable homes can be built on the small, private lots, developers won't be able to put together the large tracts they need for hotels, condos, and parking lots. The faster homes are constructed, "the more the area gets secure and the more we can beat back the plan to push everybody out," says Stallworth. "That's how we can save this area."

There is also hope in unity. In February, I attended a meeting in Gulfport of the Steps Coalition, a group of activists that includes the NAACP, environmental groups, Vietnamese community groups, and organizations trying to stop condo development. A local pastor reminded the audience why they were here. "Casinos and condos aren't all we need," she said. "We also need clean air and water and affordable housing. We need a community worth coming home to."

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of The Progressive. Copyright © 2006 by Tim Shorrock. Reprinted with permission.