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Backwater Biloxi Rebounds With Dockside Gambling : Economy: Mississippi town's casinos create 8,000 jobs. Millions in new tax revenues also boost community.

AMERICAN JOBS: One in an occasional series about remaking U.S. employment

August 30, 1993|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BILOXI, Miss. — This is not to say Biloxi was a dying town. That would be too harsh. But this one-time jewel of the Gulf of Mexico did remember its past with a wistful smile.

This is where, as far back as 1830, New Orleans socialites and upriver planters retreated to pillared mansions overlooking the Gulf's wide beaches.

It is where France set up its Louisiana Territory capital and where Confederate President Jefferson Davis made his final home. Biloxi was as Southern as seafood gumbo, as refined as a debutante born to privilege.

But hard times took hold a generation or so ago. Travelers blew right past town on the new interstate highway, depositing their money at dog tracks in Alabama and horse tracks in Louisiana and in New Orleans' spicy French Quarter.

By December, 1988, four in five motel rooms in Biloxi stood empty. The Hilton hotel chain pulled out of town. So did Ramada. Biloxi was becoming a backwater, and jobs were getting more scarce all the time.

Bob Mahoney, a lifelong resident and restaurateur, contemplated the vicissitudes of Biloxi and jobs in America the other night. In just a year, he said, everything had changed here. Suddenly Biloxi is a 24-hour town. Everyone who wants to work has a job. The city has a budget surplus and the county is issuing building permits at a record clip.

The naysayers had been wrong--dead wrong--he said, and all that gambling money that used to head across the state border was ending up right here at home.

"The way I see it," Mahoney observed, "the frogs is eating the snakes now." He paused, then went on: "My education is basically high school, but you don't have to be a genius to figure out that this is the future. This is voluntary taxes. One day you'll see casinos everywhere. Every borough in New York will have one."

When Mississippi voters approved "dockside" gambling in March, 1992--largely because of the promised creation of jobs--developers gobbled up the Biloxi waterfront so quickly that a bulldozer knocked down the wall of one restaurant 30 minutes after the last meal was served.

By sunrise, the property had been leveled, paved and painted with strips for a casino parking lot. Almost before anyone knew what had happened, a priest was blessing one of the newly arrived riverboat casinos with holy water and the mayor was declaring it "a new day in Biloxi."

Today, just 12 months after the first legal toss of dice, Biloxi's four floating casinos--each in a steel harness riveted to the dock--have raised $5 million in new tax revenues for the city and led to the creation of 8,000 jobs. Unemployment in surrounding Harrison County has been cut nearly in half, to 4.9%.

In many ways, the changing face of Biloxi's job market mirrors changes taking place within the U.S. economy itself. Faced with a declining manufacturing base--and the concurrent loss of union-secured, pension-producing, middle-class employment--communities are throwing the dice, literally and figuratively.

Long term, there are many unanswered questions. How many blackjack dealers can America absorb? And what risk is there in betting on an industry that essentially shuffles money from one pocket to another, producing only questionable growth in productivity, the true base of the nation's standard of living?

But short term, legalized gambling has become an astounding growth industry. It has created thousands of jobs--44,000 in Atlantic City alone--and raised billions in tax dollars. In Biloxi, two more casinos are scheduled to open by year's end, and applications for 30 more are on file with authorities.

The 46,000 residents here can scarcely believe that this is the same place that only yesterday was in dire straits, snoozing away the summer under a relentless sun.

"Even the people who were against gambling tell me how many good things have happened," said David Nichols, Biloxi's director of community development. "We've paid off old debts and started capital projects--roads, water, sewers--and put a cushion in the bank. I've been in government in different cities for 14 years, and this is the first place I've been that at the end of the year we actually had money to spend.

"Last month we had more gross gaming revenue than Reno. We've got 11 casinos in various stages along the Gulf and when they're all operating, we'll have more square feet of gaming than Atlantic City. And if someone wants to work in Biloxi today, he can get a job. There's no excuse for not having a job anymore."

Biloxi's work force has been transformed by gambling, and yesterday's teachers, welders and mariners have become today's blackjack dealers, slot mechanics and VIP greeters.

Many are taking home the biggest paychecks of their lives. Except for the inconvenience of bumper-to-bumper traffic that now inches along Highway 90 on the waterfront, few can come up with any downside to the arrival of Biloxi's newest industry.

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