Ronald Baker

part 1, 2

Just weeks after Katrina, the Mississippi legislature gave the casino industry a boost it had wanted for years. Previously, Mississippi law required casinos to float on water, either on riverboats or on huge barges tied to shore. A casino's hotel and restaurants would often be built on the shore, with the poker rooms and slot machine halls on an adjacent barge.

Tossed ashore by hurricane Katrina, the Grand Casino Biloxi barge crushed a landmark 19th century home.

Katrina's massive tidal surge wrecked the barges, tossing some of them up on land. The law was changed to allow Gulf Coast casinos to build within 800 feet of the water. "Katrina was a kick start for development," says Gulf Coast real estate agent Lenwood Sawyer. "It put gaming on land."

Seven of Biloxi's nine casinos had reopened by August 29, 2006, the first anniversary of the storm. Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway predicts the casino business will double in a decade.

Ronald Baker's property is smack in the casino zone. Some people would say that makes him lucky. At current rates his plot of land may be worth $1 million - perhaps much more. Casinos are fueling a land rush of sorts in East Biloxi. Some homeowners near the casino zone have been selling their property for amounts undreamed of in the past.

"Ten years ago, you talked about 50 cents a square foot," Sawyer says. He is a veteran of casino land deals in Mississippi and around the nation. Sawyer says landowners in the East Biloxi casino zone have been asking $50 to $60 a square foot, even though the neighborhood is one of the poorest parts of town. "Some of those folks are getting the greatest opportunity of their lives."

Fisherman Ronald Baker doesn't see how he can dodge the pressure from casino development. He's been approved for a $216,000 federal disaster relief loan to build a new house. But none of his neighbors are planning to stay, he says. They've either sold their land to developers or are waiting for a good deal to come along. Baker assumes the land values will be so high on his block he could never afford the taxes. So he's sitting tight, waiting for a developer to knock on the door of his FEMA trailer.

One year after Katrina, real estate agent Lenwood Sawyer says it may be another six to nine months before developers really start buying up east Biloxi land. A critical bridge linking the tip of the peninsula with the mainland got destroyed. "It's going to take a couple years to rebuild that bridge," Sawyer says. "With the bridge out, our casino people are taking their time."

As Katrina's one-year mark approached, Ronald Baker was out in his shed working on his wooden boats. Late summer cicadas buzzed in the trees. A few blocks away, bulldozers and backhoes clawed at the rubble of a demolished casino complex, making way for new construction.

"I'm kind of afraid. I don't know what the money's going to do," Baker says. The sudden prospect of wealth does not seem alluring to the fisherman. Baker worries whether he'll find another place close to the water but with enough elbow room to keep his small fleet in the yard.

"I don't want nothing elaborate," Baker says. "Give me my old boats and I'm happy."

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