For years, Wayne Hardin and his friends have made the trip from greater Atlanta to the Mississippi coast for gambling and golf. But now that Hurricane Katrina has shuttered those casinos, he and other gamblers have found new locations to place their wagers.
“Vicksburg is a very nice town,” says Hardin, reflecting on his group’s newfound discovery of this inland casino town, along the Mississippi River. One of the nicest thing about it, Hardin noted, was that he’d pocketed a couple of thousand dollars at the Isle of Capri casino’s blackjack tables.
While the coastal casinos are losing $3.3 million in gaming revenue each day, gamblers aren’t sitting on their money. Much of it is going to casinos in Vicksburg — between New Orleans and Memphis along Mississippi’s western border — and the state’s other casinos in Greenville, Natchez and Tunica and Philadelphia.
For those who want to gamble, it’s not like they have many other options.
Katrina, which shut down casinos along the Mississippi coast, also closed New Orleans’ downtown casino and three riverboat casinos in the area. Hurricane Rita shut down Lake Charles’ six casinos and an Indian reservation casino nearby. Louisiana and Mississippi are the only two deep South states with Las Vegas-style casinos; the closest alternative would be Missouri’s riverboat casinos.
So while conventions usually drawn to the shuttered casinos seek alternatives in places like Las Vegas, smaller groups of gamblers are heading to inland Mississippi casinos closer to home.
“Recreational gamblers or retirees will take any room, whenever you have it,” said Kim Tullos, general manager for the Isle of Capri’s Vicksburg casino.
Until Katrina, Tullos said her hotel rooms usually only filled on weekends. But now weeknights are also being booked weeks in advance. And there are more guests than usual from Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said it has no data indicating individual visitors that may be going there instead of the Gulf Coast casinos. But it’s been contacted by 65 groups that had events scheduled for New Orleans and Mississippi that now want to book Las Vegas.
The least damaged of the Gulf casinos, the Imperial Palace, probably won’t have gambling for another three months, said Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. But it could be years before others reopen.
The rebuilding process got a boost Monday when the state Senate sent Gov. Haley Barbour a bill that would allow the coastal casinos to move a short distance onshore, giving them greater stability in future storms.
For now, many of the buses that used to transport gamblers to the Gulf are changing direction.
“We really thought that everything was lost, at least through the end of the year,” said Donna Johnson of Trinity Tour and Travel. “The charter buses are regrouping. They’re coming in leaps and bounds. We’re continuing to book and every day it looks a little bit more promising. If people keep traveling, they can save us.”
In Tunica, which rivals the Gulf Coast in the number of casinos and money gambled, scores of groups are rebooking trips scheduled for Biloxi and Gulfport.
“We’ve just been in reaction mode here handling the calls,” said Anne Coggins, sales manager for meetings and conventions at the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. “If people are willing to adjust some dates, we’re doing our best to get them plugged in ... They’re desperate to book.”
Groups with bookings worth $3 million — not including gambling profits — that were scheduled for the Gulf Coast have sought out the Tunica visitors bureau, which is trying to accommodate requests for almost 13,000 room nights. That doesn’t including others booking directly with the area’s 13 casinos.
Business has not picked up for everybody, though. Good Time Tours of Pensacola, Fla., which ran 10 buses a day to Biloxi before the storm, is starting to sell off some of its fleet. The company is now running buses to Vicksburg and other Mississippi casino towns, but fewer people are willing to pay more to make a longer trip.
“We have people that were going every day and now they’re not going at all,” said Glen Hill, the company’s sales and marketing director. “When they can leave here in the morning at 9 o’clock and be back here at 6 o’clock and have five hours in the casino, that is not the same as leaving at 7 o’clock and returning at midnight.”
Still, Hardin and others in the Georgia group say they’re willing to travel the extra distance to places like Vicksburg if the casinos on the Gulf stay closed for a while.
His friend, Mike Moffett, said there were no disappointments in coming here instead of the Isle of Capri’s larger Biloxi casino. With the exception of his luck at the blackjack table.
“That’s a sore subject,” he said with a slight grimace. “Usually I take more of the Isle of Capri’s money.”