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Mississippi’s Beau Rivage casino reopens on Katrina anniversary

Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, once the crown jewel of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast gaming industry, reopened for business Tuesday on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Under sunny skies and a light gulf breeze, hundreds of the casino’s 3,800 employees — 400 more than before Katrina — lined up along the front entrance for a reopening ceremony that included remarks by Gov. Haley Barbour, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and others.

Thousands of casually dressed tourists and locals quickly filled the buffet lines and the gaming floor. Some wagered big bucks at the high-stakes poker tables while others dropped coins into the neon-lit slot machines.

Katrina’s scars were still visible only blocks away. Across from the opening ceremony, a group of protesters decried the lack of progress being made in providing affordable housing for low- and middle-income families as well as other lingering problems.

The $800 million Beau Rivage, owned by MGM Mirage, sustained extensive damage to its lobby but fared better than most of the other gambling houses along the Mississippi Gulf coast.

The Beau Rivage is the seventh casino on the coast to reopen after the storm, and Mississippi’s decision to allow onshore casinos is attracting billions of dollars in investments. Three more coastal casinos are set to reopen by October, including one on Thursday in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Dominick Gaeta, assistant director for food and beverage at Beau Rivage, said the resort’s reopening is a way of getting life back to normal.

“It’s like almost rebuilding my life,” said Gaeta, 41, of Chalmette, La.

Gaeta said he commuted about an hour to work for nearly eight years until his home was destroyed by Katrina. He has been living in a FEMA trailer in Marrero, La., but plans to get an apartment in Biloxi next month.

With some employees still living in FEMA trailers and a nearby customer base still suffering the economic effects of Katrina, the resort faces challenges in attracting tourists to the area.

Mary Cracchiolo, the casino’s director of public relations, said the resort is focusing on bringing back former customers and booking the hotel’s meeting spaces.

The casino was built in 1999 by developer Steve Wynn. In 2000, Wynn sold his casinos to MGM Grand, which later became MGM Mirage.

Overall, the state’s casinos earned $222.7 million statewide in July, down from $237.6 million in the same month last year. The state only allows casinos along the Gulf Coast and on the Mississippi River. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians also runs two casinos in the east central part of the state, which are not regulated or taxed by the state.

Shares of MGM Mirage rose 6 cents to close at $35.34 on the New York Stock Exchange.