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Delta Dawn: Tunica County’s 10-year gamble works

Oct 22, 2002 1:46 AM

For those skeptics who say gambling is evil, they can all visit Tunica County, Miss.

Once labeled the poorest county in America, Tunica marked its 10th anniversary of legalized gaming with a series of groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings to become even more appealing to tourists.

"Gaming and economic development go hand-in-hand," Lyn Arnold, executive director of the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce told a Mississippi newspaper. "This area was just cotton fields and a few paved roads before casinos. We had one grocery store and one stoplight."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, during a 1985 visit to the Mississippi Delta, dubbed Tunica County "America’s Ethiopia." Since then, nine casinos have been built in Tunica and have contributed more than $132.5 million annually in state and local taxes. The county employs 16,000 people with just 9,000 residents.

"The goal of Tunica officials in the next decade is to keep the development going in new directions," Arnold said. "We don’t want to be dependent on just casinos."

Nevertheless, the area is the self-proclaimed third largest U.S. gambling destination. The continued expansion is in line with the goal of getting as close as possible to Memphis, Tenn., the nearest major market.

Gaming revenues across Mississippi were up in September, despite Tropical Storm Isadore. The 12 state-regulated coast casinos, which lost an estimated $5 million during a 43-hour shutdown in September, reported that revenue last month increased 4.5 percent to $95.7 million.

Spinoffs from the monetary success of gaming are the $12 million Tunica National Golf & Tennis Club, set to open next year, and the $25 million RiverPark, slated to open next spring.

The biggest economic prize is the $38 million airport expansion, the largest single FAA-approved project in Mississippi history.

"Every year there are 200,000 people who fly into Memphis and go to Tunica," said Cliff Nash executive director of Tunica Airport. "With this expansion, we should be able to capture one-fourth of that."

Pataki warming up

New York Gov. George Pataki may be closer to issuing approval for casinos in the Catskill Mountains.

Last week, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs sent the Mohawks tribes its review of an environmental impact statement. The review speeds the effort toward the Mohawks plans to build one of the three casinos allowed in the Catskills.

Pataki said he was "tremendously optimistic" that the state can soon cut a deal with the Mohawks. The St. Regis Mohawks want to build a casino at what was formerly Kutsher’s Hotel.

AC casino on hold

The MGM Mirage last week said it was suspending preparations to build a $1.5 billion mega-resort in Atlantic City.

The Las Vegas based gaming giant cited the need to use available cash for pursuing potential casino development opportunities in the Northeast and Great Britain.

Company spokesman Alan Feldman said that popular wealthy markets in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the United Kingdom are considering various degrees of gaming expansions.

"We have a half-billion dollar investment in Borgata (newest Atlantic City resort hotel), which we are confident will be one of the top properties in the market," Feldman said. "The company has not lost interest in Atlantic City."

Conn slots rise again

Slot machine revenues at the two Connecticut casinos reached more than $1.6 billion for September.

The Hartford Courant reported that overall profits from the nearly 13,000 slots machines at Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun totaled $127 million, an increase of nearly four percent compared to the same period last year.

Industry analysts say that the state’s gaming market may be capable of growing significantly. At least four Indian tribes are hoping to open casinos in the next few years.

Slot push in Maryland

Baltimore County Congressman Robert Ehrlich said in a Washington Times story last week that he recognizes the line gaming has crossed in Maryland.

"I understand the religious and moral problem with gambling," the Republican said. "But to say keno is fine and slots at the tracks are not is a bizarre type of comment," he said. "Just like saying that scratch-offs for stadiums is great but slots for education is not."

Installing slot machines at Maryland horse tracks figures prominently in the governor’s budget plans, which estimate that slots eventually would generate as much as $800 million a year. Schools and health care would receive $220 million from that total.

Nearly half of the money that goes into slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia come from Maryland residents, according to Ehrlich.

d’Alene backs Prop 1

The Coeur d’Alene area chamber of commerce has formally endorsed Proposition 1, the Indian gaming initiative on the November ballot.

The city chamber of commerce represents more than 1,100 businesses in the Coeur d’Alene area.

The gaming initiative, sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes, would legalize video machines the tribes operate in their casinos.

Proposition is on the Nov. 5 election ballot in Idaho.