Casino Invasion Stirs Up Mississippi's Gulf Coast

Biloxi woman rallies opposition to gambling in her once-quiet town

SEVERAL generations of the DeBardeleden family have lived along the quiet waters of the Mississippi Gulf Coast since 1947. When Hurricane Camille destroyed the family home in 1969, they built another one. Now the DeBardeledens are fighting a potentially more enduring threat to their way of life: commercial development brought by legalized gambling.

``This is a really special place to all of us who live here,'' says Nonnie DeBardeleden. ``You never have to worry about where your children are or who they are with. There aren't too many places like that anymore.''

Next month, Ms. DeBardeleden and her neighbors plan to go before the Mississippi Gaming Commission and oppose the latest casino proposed for construction at Henderson Point, just across the water from the DeBardeleden's property.

Last summer, DeBardeleden founded Concerned Citizens to Protect the Isles and Point, an opposition group that now has 1,500 members.

``We're not antidevelopment, we're not against progress, and we're not opposed to gambling on the whole,'' DeBardeleden says. ``But there have to be places where there aren't casinos.''

The initial success of casino gambling in Mississippi has exceeded all expectations. Pastel-colored tourist shops and mom-and-pop seafood restaurants are quickly being replaced by flashy casinos and luxury hotel developments. But as the traditional way of life here among the moss-draped live oaks and white-columned mansions is being dramatically altered, some residents are banding together to slow the pell-mell pace of development.

Twelve major casino operations now dominate the 35-mile stretch of white-sand beach known as the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The area has become a magnet for America's growing population of gamblers.

Marilyn Neville Lewis last visited the Magnolia State's Gulf Coast 51 years ago. In 1943, her family came to nearby Keesler Air Force Base to see her older brother before he left to fight in World War II.

``Biloxi was a sleepy Southern town then,'' says Ms. Lewis, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ``I probably wouldn't be back in this area if it wasn't for the casinos.''

Floridians and others in the Southeast who don't want to travel all the way to Las Vegas have started flocking to the Gulf Coast casinos.

Renee Daywood, who also lives in Florida, has been to Las Vegas 18 times. This is her first visit to Mississippi's casinos, and she's impressed. ``I plan to come back,'' she says. ``It's close to home, and it's all new. I think it's brilliant of city planners to do something like this.''

But some city planners here are beginning to put the brakes on casino development. What began as a warmly welcomed opportunity to attract tourist dollars and increase employment is becoming an unrelenting drain on the region's infrastructure.

``It's been beneficial for the city financially, but we're experiencing some real growing pains,'' says A.J. Holloway, the mayor of Biloxi. Traffic along Highway 90, a four-lane scenic highway along the coast, has become unbearable for many residents. And the region has not been able to build new hotel rooms fast enough to accommodate the flood of visitors. Every room in the area is booked on weekends. Although nearly 2,000 new hotel rooms are being built along Biloxi's casino row, local water and sewer systems are unprepared for this surge in growth. So the city is pouring funding into infrastructure improvements.

``I think we need to slow down and catch our breath until we can see where we are and where we want to go,'' Mayor Holloway says.

Under the Mississippi Gaming Control Act, passed in 1990, each locality must approve casino gambling.

Two years ago this August, 60 percent of Biloxi's residents voted for legalized gaming. ``But that was before it intruded on people's lives,'' Holloway says. ``Now that it's stepping on their toes, many people feel differently about it.''

Now the only recourse citizens have is zoning, Holloway says. ``I would not recommend any more zoning for gaming,'' he says.

No one denies that legalized gambling has brought a substantial financial windfall to the region. ``I never dreamed it would be doing what it is,'' Holloway says. Unemployment has dropped from 7.1 percent in 1992 to 4.2 percent in 1993. Since August 1992, Biloxi alone has brought in $412 million in gross gaming revenues. The city received $10.5 million in taxes while $32 million went to the state.

Local schools have benefited from the new funds, but there have been increased costs as well. The city has bought 12 new police cars, hired more building inspectors, law-enforcement personnel, and other city employees.

What worries Holloway is not so much the boom but the inevitable bust. New Orleans, just 50 miles to the west, has plans to build the largest casino in the world, and Mississippi's Gulf Coast is already hosting double the number of casinos experts predicted it could support.

Just last month, Casino Magic Corp., which has two casinos on the Gulf Coast, laid off 300 employees.

Holloway is working on a plan to set up contract limitations for all new city employees so that when things begin to slow down the city will not be over-burdened with unnecessary staff.

The economic repercussions of the casino boom reach deep into the community. Some local restaurants and tourist businesses have closed because they cannot compete with the casinos.

Fishing, the region's main industry in the pre-gambling days, is getting squeezed out. The coastal area now taken over by casinos was once lined with docks and boat slips for shrimpers. Many of those slips have not been replaced in new locations, as the casino operators promised. Fish processing plants and ice plants are also being forced out.

Behind the sprawling Grand Casino in Gulfport, several rows of shrimping boats look out of place in their glittery new surroundings.

While the slot-machine levers go up and down inside the Grand, Vietnamese shrimper Kay Dang spends the afternoon readying the John L. for another early-morning trip out in the Gulf. Many of his friends have given up on the business and gone to work for the casinos.

Those that keep fishing are worried about the environmental damage being caused by hastily constructed casinos, Mr. Dang says.

Just west of Biloxi, away from casino row, shrimper Charlie Seal has seen less impact from the gambling and has no intention of giving up his boat, the Free Bird. ``This is just a boom, that's all it is,'' he says of the casinos. ``Then it will go away.''

FOR now, the supply of casino jobs is pushing wages higher throughout the region. After local banks began losing their tellers to the better-paying casino jobs, for example, the banks were forced to raise their salaries.

``Everybody is getting jobs and casinos are paying above-average salaries compared to what was here before,'' says John Albert, a limousine driver for The Grand in Gulfport. ``In fact, people are coming here from other states to get employment because of the gambling.''

Some dealers and other casino workers have come east from Las Vegas to the casino-rush here on the Gulf. And many of the casino operators try to make the gambling experience as similar to Las Vegas as possible.

Most of the casinos here are built on barges floating on the Gulf of Mexico. The state law stipulates that all gaming facilities must be floating, but many are built to look like Las Vegas-style, land-based casinos. These floating buildings often have more square feet on land than water. Restaurants, entertainment facilities, and administrative offices sit on land with an almost imperceptible threshold leading to floating gaming facilities.

``A lot of people don't go on river boats; they don't like to be on water. So we designed our casinos to look like a land-based casino,'' says Len James Giacone of Casino Magic Corp.

Casino Magic's Bay Saint Louis location is touted as the ``largest dockside casino development in the world.'' But you would hardly know it is dockside unless you slipped around the back for a peek. The casino floor slants slightly during high tides, but few gamblers seem to notice.

Casino Magic is building a 1,500-room hotel, a 5,000-seat auditorium, and a 60,000-square-foot convention center on the 550-acre site here. But for now, visitors have to stay several miles away from the casino. A makeshift, temporary theater hosts singers and other entertainers.

Casino operators speak proudly about the changes they are bringing to the Gulf Coast. ``It's progress,'' Mr. Giacone says. ``We have to improve our infrastructure to accommodate the industry.''

But if progress means traffic, pollution, and environmental degradation in her community, Mrs. DeBardeleden wants nothing to do with it. A lot of people have told her she's crazy to take on the powerful gambling industry.

``How do you tell a gorilla where to sit? He sits anywhere he wants,'' DeBardeleden recalls being told by friends. ``But you can't just sit back and do nothing. These are our homes and communities,'' she says.

DeBardeleden's opposition group plans to pursue every legal option available. They've collected individual donations ranging from $5 to $10,000.

She won't say how much they have put aside for the fight, except that ``it's enough to keep this in court for as long as we have to. If we lose, we lose. But we're going to go down fighting,'' she says.

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