The Mississippi Gulf Coast recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of legalized gambling. Thousands stood in the heat on August 1, 1992 to board the Isle of Capri Casino’s two riverboats at Point Cadet on the eastern tip of Biloxi. Recalling the lines, former Isle of Capri executive Tim Hinkley said, “That was my instant recollection that we might have something here. And obviously we did. Our name recognition from being first got us the best employees. It got us recognition from then on. And I think we did a good job with it. But also good for the coast. Good for the state.”
Later Isle of Capri sold the property to Landry’s, which renamed it Golden Nugget.
State Senator Tommy Gollott was the primary force in legalizing gambling in the state. In 1990, many of the seafood plants in his district had closed. He said many people had lost their jobs and the economy needed a boost.
“We had illegal gambling going on along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I wanted to legalize it, because all the money was going to the black market, which was not going to the state,” Gollott recalled.
His colleagues at first resisted casino gambling. “They love the money, but a lot of them hate the gambling. When I came with the legislation, one of my colleagues, he would get up and challenge me on all of it, and he said there was no way that I was going to bring in $25 million or $30 million a year,” Gollott said.
After two attempts, Gollott’s bill passed, despite many lawmakers calling in sick the day of the vote. Soon after, in December 1990, citizens voted on the issue in a referendum: Hancock County said yes, Harrison County said no. The economy got worse, and a second vote in Harrison County in March 1992 passed with 57 percent.
The first boats arrived later that year in time for the August 1 Isle of Capri opening. “Right after that, the rest of the casinos started showing up,” Gollott said. He recalled he took prospective casino operators “all around the coast and showed them what we had, and said you can make it here as well as you’re making it in Vegas and these other areas that you’re in.”
The economy rebounded and more than 15,000 jobs were created. “We have worked a lot of our people into the gaming industry, and it’s worked very well for Mississippi. Twenty-five years of gaming and $24 billion have come into the state of Mississippi,” Gollott said.
Casinos moved ashore following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes commented, “It took us a long time, but our northern and central Mississippi legislators were willing to give us the help we needed.” Tourism volunteer Rich Westfall said, “We had great restaurants opening. We had beautiful hotel rooms. We had banquet space. We had golf courses. The whole tourism industry just blossomed at that point.”
Gaming publisher Michael Sunderman noted, “I knew we had the potential down here, but I think it has far exceeded everyone’s expectations. Resorts such as the Beau Rivage have set the standards throughout the southeast.”
City of Gulfport Chief Administrative Officer Dr. John Kelly added, “When I moved to the coast in 1972, the coast was a tourist destination with no tourists. Today, I guarantee you we’re competing with some of the best in the industry,” said Kelly.
IP Casino Resort General Manager Duncan McKenzie stated, “I’ve seen a lot of great positive change, and I can continue to see a lot of great positive change. I think we’re not even halfway there. I think the next 25 years are going to be even brighter than the last.”
And Governor Phil Bryant recently stated, “Visitors marvel at what they see. These destination locations are far beyond, and I think what I imagined and most people did back in 1992.”