Entrepreneurs Gamble On Decade Old Casino Industry

Business people always look at economic indicators. Since 1992, South Mississippi's key indicators have been on the rise. The airport has more jets, more flights and more passengers than ever before. The coast has tripled its hotel inventory. It has more meeting space. And it has an estimated 19 million visitors a year.

Those findings are why several entrepreneurs gambled their fortunes. People like David Gross took a chance, and opened businesses that could capitalize on South Mississippi's new casino industry.

Gross owns Gulf Coast Laundry Services. "This has far exceeded all of our expectations by a considerable amount," he said.

Gross used to be Mirage Resort's laundry services director. So he knows a thing or two about laundry plants. When Mirage was building Beau Rivage, Gross came to the coast on a fact finding mission. He realized the area didn't have a centralized location to wash hotel linens. So Steve Wynn told him to build one.

"The plant was designed to do approximately 350,000 pounds of laundry a week," he said. "We're now doing over 450,000 pounds of laundry every week through the plant."

The laundry comes from four coast casinos and four New Orleans hotels. Nearly 150 people either sort the laundry or send it through automated drying and folding machines. According to the plant's owner, business is as bright as the linens he washes. "That's absolutely correct," said Gross. "It definitely provided us with an opportunity to build a laundry on this scale, size and scope, to be able to do the work in an efficient, economical manner."

The automated machines make some of the laundry work hands off.

Just the opposite is the case at Michael Giampa's restaurant. Giampa is a very hands on restaurateur. "It's a lot of work," Giampa said, standing right next to his kitchen. "But hopefully it will pay off in the long run."

Giampa is from Philadelphia. He moved to Biloxi to work in a Beau Rivage kitchen. The chef spent 18 months in the casino's kitchen. And then he set off on his own. The 27th Avenue Bistro in downtown Gulfport is Giampa's dream come true.

"It's very nice to be your own boss, and also to create something and build a business, especially in this environment, when there aren't that many restaurants right now," he said.

Giampa feels like his restaurant has hit the jackpot.

Michael Sunderman has the same feeling, partly because his business has Jackpot in its title. Sunderman is the editor of Jackpot Magazine. "Business wise and personally this has been one of the best decisions I ever made in my life and my family's life," he said.

Sunderman moved to Mississippi in 1994 and launched Jackpot Magazine. Initially, the magazine didn't attract the advertisers it needed to make money. "If you asked me the first year, I would had said no, maybe it's time to fold up the tent," Sunderman remembered. "But as we went along and built relationships, which all business is is building relationships, it just took on a life of its own."

Today Jackpot Magazine has six million readers. "I think we've been more successful than we could have dreamed about," he said.

School districts are saying the same thing. Biloxi, Gulfport and Harrison County schools get a percentage of the casino tax revenue. In Biloxi's case, that percentage has deposited roughly $36 million into the school system's budget. The tax money has paid for pay raises and repair projects. And now, the casino taxes are paying off Biloxi's new school construction debt.