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Chris Jones

Gulf Coast Official Vows Tourism Will Return

21 September 2005

A successful return of casino gaming is vital to revitalizing the Gulf Coast's travel industry, but it could take two to three more years for the region to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina's devastation, a Gulf Coast tourism official said Tuesday in Las Vegas.

When tourism in the area re-emerges, visitors should expect more high-rise condominiums as well as land-based casinos, said Drew Allen, a 15-year board member with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Once (gaming) gets going, the engine starts for tourism again," said Allen, who is in Las Vegas this week to attend a Pepsi-Cola bottlers convention at Caesars Palace. "I'm worn out, but I'm also optimistic that we'll be back bigger and better."

Allen's primary business is Allen Beverage, which distributes Pepsi products throughout southern Mississippi.

Mississippi legislators will next week meet for a special session that's likely to include a push to legalize land-based casinos in the state.

Thirteen casinos in Gulfport, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Miss., located above the coastline were destroyed or damaged by Katrina. Overall, 260,000 travel industry jobs and $50 million in daily visitor economic impact were lost due to the disaster, the president of the Travel Industry Association of America said Monday in Las Vegas.

Allen said he supports the concept of placing casinos on land in Mississippi, with certain restrictions.

"Most of the big casinos have (land-based) hotels already," Allen said. "We need to give those businesses a break. ... I wouldn't want to see casinos just anywhere, but if they're close to where they were before, I'd support that."

Allen also said many older hotels in the region were closing down or being converted to condominiums before Katrina. Given the chance to start from scratch, he believes many builders will develop high-rise condos offering guests more amenities than their predecessors.

While many of the Gulf Coast's natural attractions were destroyed by Katrina, Allen said the region's beaches and traditional Southern hospitality should help lure customers to casinos again. One of the Gulf Coast's most distinctive features, live-oak trees that grow within a few feet of the region's shoreline, are still there, Allen said, "because God put them there."

Like those trees, Allen added most Gulf residents will stay where their roots are strongest.

Allen's family history with hurricanes dates back nearly 60 years. In 1947, his father, Cleve, opened a Gulf Coast bottling company tied to Spur, a cola product from the makers of Canada Dry ginger ale. "He was going to come down south and take on Big Red," Allen said, referencing Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which is still a favorite in the South.

A week after it opened, however, a hurricane hit and wiped out half of Cleve Allen's potential customer base. Despite that setback, the company survives today, and Drew Allen expects a similar "can do" spirit will again allow Gulf Coast residents and businesses to persevere.

"It's not easy, but we're certainly going to come back," Allen told his fellow Pepsi bottlers. "And we'll come back stronger than before."