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BILOXI, Mississippi -- As the state's largest casino roared back to life, Mississippi's top elected leaders reiterated that the coastal region would never be the same.
But they believe different will be better.
The reopening of MGM Mirage's Beau Rivage on Tuesday, one year after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, could foreshadow a change in how major gaming companies invest in the region. MGM Mirage spent $550 million to refurbish the 1,740-room hotel-casino. The original property cost $800 million.
Billions of dollars more may be on tap for the Gulf Coast, elected leaders said.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who last fall pushed Mississippi lawmakers to approve legislation allowing casinos along the coast to rebuild 800 feet away from the shoreline, said the communities of Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis may form a region akin to Las Vegas.
"The coast is going to become much more of a destination resort," Barbour said. "One of the reasons is the casino industry. They're going to be rebuilding a much higher product. They are going to make a much greater capital investment. With the ability to build on shore, you'll see more amenities, more hotel rooms, more golf courses, health clubs, convention space and more restaurants."
Barbour said Beau Rivage spurred casino development when it opened in 1999. The reopening may have a similar effect. MGM Mirage plans to open a long-planned championship golf course 15 miles north of Beau Rivage by November.
Harrah's Entertainment, which reopened the Grand Casino here on Aug. 18, has said it is master-planning a 50-acre parcel in Biloxi for future development.
"The Beau was the first casino built here after it was clear gaming on the Mississippi Gulf Coast would work," Barbour said. "We're going to see more resorts like Beau Rivage. The quality of the product and the capital investment here will be much more significant than in the 1990s."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a resident of Pascagoula whose 151-year-old family home washed away in the storm, said a lot of the area's history was washed away by the storm. What replaces the stately Southern mansions must reflect the community, he said, even if the area becomes a resort destination.
"Our job is to have a vision of what we want (Biloxi) to be," Lott said. "We have to make sure it's balanced and not just gaming operations or high-rise condominiums. We want green space and a variety of housing. We also want small businesses to do well. And you know what, we're going to get it."
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