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Cherry Demolition Clears Way for Casino’s Recovery

Mon February 12, 2007 - Southeast Edition
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At 600 ft. (183 m) in length and 150 ft. (46 m) in width, the Grand Casino Biloxi was almost exactly the size of two football fields positioned end to end.

That such a massive facility — which sat on water atop six barges to comply with Mississippi’s pre-Katrina gaming laws — could be moved approximately 1 mi. and pushed inland across U.S. Highway 90 is a good illustration of the incredibly destructive force delivered by the hurricane as it overtook Biloxi, Miss., in August 2005.

The Grand’s fate was representative of the doom that befell other gambling barges in Biloxi’s Casino Row, all of which were suddenly referred to in the past tense in the wake of the storm. The situation wasn’t any better for the casino hotels. Extensive damage to buildings, homes and infrastructure had effectively shut down the city and its economy, which depends heavily on tourist dollars to survive.

Survival was the instinct that kicked in for many across the Gulf Coast in the fall of 2005. As the renewal process began in Biloxi, that instinct was almost immediately transformed into action. Many companies retained their hotel and casino property, while others were sold to new ownership. In both cases the decision was made, almost universally, to rebuild even bigger and better than before.

The Grand Casino Biloxi had been acquired by Harrah’s Entertainment in June 2005 prior to the hurricane, which derailed a prior proposal to improve and rename the establishment. In early 2006, Harrah’s purchased the Casino Magic Biloxi next door and launched plans to build a new casino and hotel on the combined site. But before the new resort could go up, the damaged structures had to come down.

Harrah’s hired Cherry Demolition for a $3 million project to remove all the concrete and existing buildings from the Grand’s 17-acre (6.9 ha) campus.

Founded in Houston in 1952, Cherry is licensed for demolition work in 25 states. The company added a crushed concrete division to its business in 1994, a move that has benefited Cherry on its many demolition projects involving concrete removal.

With the proper resources in place to process the millions of dollars worth of recyclable concrete on the site, Cherry was an ideal contractor to take on the project. The company quickly found itself not just tearing down buildings, but also filling a noticeable material void in the Mississippi road construction industry.

“All the flatwork, beams and clean concrete that we take from the site goes through two separate crushing units so it can be used as road aggregate or base rock,” said Robert Cantrell, job superintendent of Cherry Demolition.

“The Gulf Coast has had a significant rock shortage for quite some time, but for whatever reason they had never really recycled this type of material. There are a lot of big players in the demolition industry in Biloxi right now, and fortunately everyone saw the opportunity to make use of this concrete. It’s one positive thing to point to amidst all the destruction.”

The cleanup operation began in March 2006 with the assignment to take down two high-rise parking garages, a performing arts theater and a porte-cochere that had served as an entryway to the casino barge. Also on the property was the 12-story, 550-room Grand Casino Island View Hotel, which Cherry destroyed by implosion in May 2006.

While the hotel was brought to its knees in short order, the parking garages proved to be a more formidable challenge for the demolition crew.

“The parking structures were built using a new post-tension technology with reinforced concrete and shielded cable,” Cantrell said. “The buildings are still fairly new — only approximately 10 years old. Even so, we didn’t anticipate the number of cables in the concrete and the tensile strength of the entire structure. When dealing with older construction you can sometimes knock out one corner and basically collapse the whole building. But not this one — it was very well built.”

Cherry had two hydraulic breakers on site to break apart the concrete columns of the parking garages, including an Atlas Copco MB 1700 hydraulic breaker attachment mounted on a Komatsu PC 400 excavator.

“The strength of the concrete columns dictated using breakers,” Cantrell said. “You can get a lot of production out of a breaker in a situation like this because the operator can just hammer away at the material without needing too much finesse. And this breaker has always been good to us — low maintenance, high impact and it gets the job done. That’s really what a contractor is looking for.”

The breaker was especially helpful when it came time to reduce the large pieces of concrete rubble to smaller portions that could be handled by the crusher on site. With thousands of concrete chunks scattered throughout the demolition area, it was important to maintain efficiency to keep the project on schedule, according to the contractor.

As the MB 1700 continued to break concrete, several other excavators scooped up the reduced pieces and other debris. After the debris was hauled off, the concrete driveway slabs and other foundational materials were next to be removed.

The dirt and soil along most of the Biloxi coast is not of load bearing density, a situation that forced the original hotel architects to place all the structures on sections of flatwork supported by pile foundations. The piles are long, slender columns that transfer the load to soil or rock with high bearing capacity deep below the surface. Concrete pile caps placed atop the piles help facilitate this load transfer.

Cantrell pointed out that the rest of Biloxi has accomplished a lot since Katrina.

“Biloxi has recovered tremendously, but there’s still work left to do. Casino Row is certainly building back more rapidly than a lot of the residential areas. Everyone is doing what they can to re-open and draw the public in, because that tourist revenue is really what’s going to bring the city back,” he said.

Mississippi has aided the economic recovery effort by changing a law that previously kept gambling off Mississippi soil, and instead on barges and piers right along the coast. New legislation now gives the companies the option — which most are taking — of building their casinos on land along the Gulf of Mexico.

For its part, Cherry made the most of the situation it took over to assist the community as well.

“There are bits and pieces of the Grand Casino spread throughout the Gulf Coast,” said Cantrell. “The hotel was full of glass chandeliers, tables and chairs, and even some gymnasium equipment. We got in touch with several local charities to give away as much as we could, rather than simply junking everything.”

In the demolition industry it isn’t uncommon to be destroying a place that is a central element of someone’s personal history. From that perspective, helping to bring new life to a devastated city through work on the Grand Casino Biloxi project was a unique experience for Cantrell and the other nine members of Cherry Demolition on the site.

“People often get upset because you’re there to tear down a memory or part of their lives,” Cantrell said. “But here in Biloxi they are happy to see you — and they’re looking forward to seeing what springs up when you leave.”