The Mississippi Gulf Coast, a short drive northeast from New Orleans, was the second hardest hit region in Hurricane Katrina. More than 250 people in the area were killed by the August 2005 storm, many more went missing and the region suffered millions of dollars worth of structural damage.

Today, more than two years later, Bay St. Louis – an area along the coast known for its small-town charm – still has several houses, storefronts and churches boarded up. The city is struggling to regain its population and tax revenue. The lights are always on, however, at Hollywood Casino, Bay St. Louis’s glitzy hub.

Only a week after Katrina touched ground in Mississippi, while the impact of the storm still hadn’t settled in, Mississippi Gaming Commission Chairman Jerry St. Pe’ and CEO Larry Gregory flew to Las Vegas to discuss plans with senior casino executives to reopen Gulf casinos. Of the 12 riverboat casinos located along the coast prior to the storm, all were severely damaged or destroyed, and it didn’t seem like they would be rebuilt without some serious convincing.

Thanks to the negotiating of St. Pe’ and the Mississippi legislature’s willingness to revise a couple of gaming laws, casinos returned one by one starting in December of 2005. Today, almost all of the casinos have relocated inland – land-based gambling was legalized in October 2005 – and several more are in the works. While this expansion will bring needed revenue to Mississippi, casino proliferation ultimately leads to thrashing an area’s culture and eliminating regional distinction, a chilling societal problem especially worrisome for the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission’s eagerness to bring the casinos back to town as quickly as they were wiped out represents a mentality of lawmakers across the country. Logic holds: Bring in the casinos to promote more cash flow and carry a state out of debt. Aside from Mississippi, this has been seen in Louisiana, New Jersey and Michigan. The 11 states with commercial casinos in 2006 reported a $5.2 billion tax revenue from casinos.

Few people outside of religious conservatives are complaining about casino growth. Casino attendance has more than doubled in the past decade. Total gaming revenue has grown from $45.1 billion to $84.7 billion between 1995 and 2005, showing that people are betting more at the tables, participating in lotteries and making legal bookings at higher rates. Judging by the growing number of casinos, quick slot machines at airports and bars and the growing Internet market, the gaming craze is here to stay.

As a Wall Street Journal feature story on casinos last weekend asked, who even needs Vegas anymore? From Biloxi to Detroit to San Diego, luxurious gaming centers are popping up around the country. Some statistics show that 75 percent of Americans live within driving distance of a casino. In every state but Utah and Hawaii, at least some form of gambling is legalized. Evidently, the proliferation is creeping into everyone’s backyards.

There’s no denying that the expansion of gaming methods are a quick fix to state deficits. Casinos are assets to cities like Detroit: They bring in jobs and business. Many of this country’s cities would be much worse off if they didn’t have a gaming industry. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago has jumped on this bandwagon and is currently at odds with state legislators over the construction of a land-based Chicago casino. Daley thinks the city could become the next hotspot for casino-seeking tourists and that could spare the city from a fiscal dilemma. Indeed it may, but at what cost? Chicago will just be added to growing list of cities to conform to the casino culture, which has caused areas from Detroit to the Gulf Coast to lose their unique regional flair in attempting to mimic Las Vegas.

Last month, as I drove down a mile-long winding road toward Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, away from the boarded up bungalows and gas stations and the stench of the Gulf, I saw first-hand the cost of using casinos as a quick monetary fix for a distressed area. Sure, Hollywood Casino may have brought cash, residents and jobs to the Gulf Coast town after the hurricane, but it has stripped the city of its character.

There is also a bizarre dichotomy between the inland casino and the yet-to-be-rebuilt town. None of the gaming commissioners are interested in rebuilding the restaurants and shops along the Gulf that previously made this city a resort area, because there’s a casino bringing in a steady income.

Sure, casinos have a practical side, but why are we so willing to throw away regional culture to make a quick buck? And since when did pulling the lever on a slot machine or throwing blue chips at a craps table become an excuse for recreation in our society? What opponents of the Chicago casino have tried to argue and what casinos in the South have proven is that casinos take away an irreplaceable underlying charm of a region.

Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at thenelly@umich.edu.

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