BILOXI, Miss. -- Joe Billhimer can look out his office window and watch the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino take shape against the skyline, but his eyes are focused on the customers he wants in the resort when it opens in late summer 2005.
The Hard Rock will draw new tourists because of its name recognition, but Billhimer has been in the Coast gambling business long enough to not to take anything for granted -- especially some very important people.
"We're focused on what the local customers want," he said. "We want everyone in this area to refer to it as their Hard Rock. We want them to be proud of this."
The resort will bring several firsts to the Coast: the first Ben & Jerry's ice cream retail store, the first rooftop lounge at a casino and what will surely be some first acts.
"The entertainment for Hard Rock will be a diverse array of Rock 'n' Roll musicians," Billhimer said. "We won't just focus on the younger demographics. We'll be zoning in on all types of Rock 'n' Roll. There's some great artists out there that have been around for years. One of the unique things is we're actually being contacted by certain groups as opposed to us contacting them."
The Paul Steelman Design Group, which is designing the casino, is one of Las Vegas's top architectural firms. Billhimer said plans are being updated to make sure it's a place that has the right feel.
"The whole concept is very clean lines -- contemporary, yet comfortable," he said.
Barring any unforeseen problems, the hotel should be topped off before Christmas. Two barges that are the floating foundation for the casino have already arrived. Concrete pilings around the barges will bear the weight of the casino's roof and walls.
Karl Bulot, vice president of support services and project manager for Hard Rock Biloxi, said when gamblers enter the casino and gaze across the floor they will see no visible support columns or obstruction. The structure will be the only construction of its kind among the Coast's 12 casinos.
The casino will have 1,500 slot machines and 50 table games.
"We're exploring the possibility of a small poker room -- a hip poker room -- to take advantage of what's gong on the U.S," Billhimer said. "We're going to entertain it real seriously. It looks good right now. I just don't want to be too committal about it."
The $235 million project remains on track to open in late August or early September despite construction interruptions caused by Hurricane Ivan.
Billhimer remains bullish about the potential for the growth in the Coast's casino market.
"Obviously, the hurricane has hurt us with the Mobile and Pensacola market," he said. "That should fully rebound by the time we open."