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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Review-Journal reporter Howard Stutz and photographer John Locher recently visited the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region to examine the effect on the gaming industry. This is the third in a weeklong series of articles looking at how the industry and its employees are dealing with the disaster.
BILOXI, Miss. - Hurricane Katrina accomplished what three other storms couldn't -- sink the buccaneer-themed Treasure Bay casino.
But Bernie Burkholder, who opened the pirate ship-styled gambling barge in 1994, isn't ready to walk the plank.
He vowed to open a land-based, albeit smaller, version of the Treasure Bay by June once he secures financing.
"Some of the money will come through insurance proceeds, as well as from savings and from selling what we can salvage," said Burkholder, watching as construction crews demolished the Treasure Bay's dockside facilities. "But the largest portion will come from borrowing."
Fellow Gulf Coast casino operators openly expressed admiration for Burkholder. Privately, many cast doubt on his ability to obtain financing to bring back the Treasure Bay.
During its years of operation, the Treasure Bay was more of a photo opportunity for tourists than a Gulf Coast gaming leader.
Today, the site sits amid a section of the Mississippi coastline ravaged by Katrina's 135 mph winds and 30-foot storm surge. Motels, restaurants and bars and souvenir shops that were neighbors to the casino lay in ruins. In the Treasure Bay parking lot, casino debris was strewn about. Discarded "Silver Crew" slot club cards were scattered in the sand.
Before Katrina hit, the Treasure Bay had 978 slot machines and 47 table games on a 41,000 square foot-barge built to resemble a Jolly Roger. In addition to restaurants, the Treasure Bay operated a small hotel across Highway 90.
All were damaged beyond repair by the hurricane on Aug. 29. The barge broke from its moorings and came to rest about 100 yards from its dock, dragging two of its four 60-inch concrete and metal-cased pylons.
Because it wasn't part of a publicly traded company, it is unclear what Treasure Bay contributed to the Gulf Coast's $1.2 billion in annual gaming revenue.
"We had more of a loss history than other properties," said Burkholder, president and chief executive officer of the privately held Treasure Bay LLC, which also operates three Caribbean Island casinos.
He said hurricanes closed the Treasure Bay for 13 days in 1998 and 17 days in 2002.
"Because of that loss history, we found ourselves in a position where it wasn't economical to insure the vessel," Burkholder said. "We had insurance on the hotel and castle (restaurant areas) and all land-based structures"
Burkholder said he would rebuild the casino 800 feet from the water, based on the new posthurricane Mississippi gaming regulations. Without knowing any immediate costs, he said construction would start in February, with the casino opening in June. The hotel should follow five months later.
"As a business decision, it's the right thing to do," Burkholder said. "The community is going to rebuild bigger and better than it ever was."
Because Treasure Bay is a small operation and lacked insurance on the gaming barge, Burkholder was not able to pay the casino's 1,000 employees for 90 days as did other casino operators. He said the company tried to find workers jobs in the area; for example, his entire finance department was hired by a local construction company.
While small, the Treasure Bay did have a loyal, local following.
"I miss it," said Biloxi resident Thomas Catron. "We were there Friday night before the storm hit."
Burkholder's rebuilding plans rebutted the pronouncements of some gaming analysts who said not all of the 13 destroyed Gulf Coast casinos would or could be rebuilt.
Jefferies & Co., in a September industry report, said the Treasure Bay would not return.
"We'll have a casino open in June and probably half our employees back to work by the end of the year," Burkholder predicted.
The fate of other Gulf Coast casinos not operated by the major gaming companies is still in question.
The Copa Casino in Gulfport was demolished earlier this month.
One casino boat, the President, was scheduled to be moved this month to a location west of Biloxi in Lakeshore, Miss. The 38,000-square-foot casino operated 860 slot machines, 33 gaming tables and an eight-table poker room, as well as a small hotel.
However, the hurricane tore the barge loose from its moorings and sent the casino floating about mile from its dock, coming to rest alongside Highway 90 next to a small motel and near the Mississippi Coast Coliseum events center.
The loss of the smaller boats saddened some Mississippians.
"Treasure Bay was a nice place and I liked the President," said James Skoros, a retired military veteran and Biloxi resident. "It's too bad all these casinos were destroyed."
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