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Tunica takes a look at a decade of sound success

TUNICA — Twenty years ago Jesse Jackson toured Tunica County and said the abject poverty in the area qualified it to be known as “America’s Ethiopia.”

What a difference 10 years of gaming has made. The “Tunica Miracle” has included total capital investments of more than $4 billion. Average income has more than doubled from $9,000 in 1991 to $20,000 in 2001. The percent of food stamp recipients in the county has gone from 51.2% in 1992 to 14.8% in 2001. And unemployment rates have dropped from 24% to less than 5%.

“Everyone who wants to work has a job,” says John Osborne, president of Mississippi Gaming Association and general manager of the Hollywood Casino in Tunica.

Actually there are even more jobs than residents of Tunica County. Currently there are 10 casinos in the area known as “The South’s Casino Capital” located 30 miles south of Memphis, Tenn. that boasts 6,300 new hotel rooms and an estimated 10 to 12 million visitors annually.

Webster Franklin, executive director of Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said Tunica has been transformed from a once sleepy agricultural community into one of the most successful tourism stories in the U.S. over the past decade.

“In the past 10 years we saw Tunica County, which was one of the more impoverished counties in the nation, transformed by the opportunities the gaming industry brought to Tunica County by providing jobs for our citizens,” Franklin said. “We have created 16,000 new, good paying jobs. Not only has it provided jobs, but it has also provided an economic windfall to our government that has allowed us to do many things improving the quality of life of the citizens here.”

The CVB, Tunica County and the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce recently released a report “The Tunica Miracle, The Economic Impact of Gaming & Tourism, 1992-2002.”

“Tunica has and will always be blanketed by white fields of cotton,” the report’s introduction states. “Make no mistake, the birthplace of the Blues will never miss an opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your soul. As we continue to celebrate our heritage, nothing defines the endless possibilities of Tunica like the economic success experienced in these last 10 years of growth and prosperity.”

Sales up 600%

The report touts the fact that Tunica has gone from the lowest per capita income in the state to the 17th highest. Retail sales are up 600%, and taxes fueled by gaming and tourism have led to the following capital investments:

• About $3 billion in investments in 10 world-class casino resorts.

• More than $100 million in highway improvements.

• An additional $20 million in county revenues to provide for new public schools and fire protection.

• A new $5.8-million Recreation and Wellness Center.

• The $22-million Tunica Arena & Exposition Center.

• The $25-million Tunica RiverPark with Landing, Museum and EcoTour.

• Airport improvements are underway that will include a runway capable of landing 747 jets.

Osborne points out that currently Tunica County has the highest spending per pupil of any other public school district in Mississippi. Teacher salaries have gone from last place to fourth place in the state, now averaging $36,000 annually.

“Yet Tunica County has one of the lowest millage rates in the state, and people in the City of Tunica pay no city property taxes at all,” Osborne said. “Looking back ten years the most exciting thing that I have seen for the industry is how well the industry has blended with Mississippi communities, and the involvement of the casino industry in local charities and civic organizations. When I look back at both the cash and volunteer labor contributions that have been made, it makes me proud of our industry. It makes me look forward to the next 10 years to see further progress.”

Osborne said the challenge for the industry as a whole in Mississippi will be to continue the momentum. He added that, while attracting Nissan to Mississippi is certainly a milestone, the state needs to continue to find the economic stimulus to attract new businesses and better-paying jobs to Mississippi.

Tunica will be celebrating the state’s 10-year anniversary of gaming with special events and promotions by casinos resorts and other area businesses that will be held throughout the summer and fall. A “Big Bang” celebration is planned in October to conclude the anniversary.

Franklin says Tunica’s accomplishments over the past 10 years are certainly worthy of a spectacular celebration.

“We’ve come a long way since the first casino, Splash, opened in 1992,” Franklin said. “In those first days, when patrons stood in line for three hours and paid a $10 cover charge to get onto the gaming floor, the industry took note and realized the incredible opportunity Tunica offered. The rest is history, and now we begin a months-long celebration to thank everyone who has made Tunica’s success possible.”

Tunica has been successful in part because 25% of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of Tunica, and much of that population has no other access to the type of gaming amenities offered at Tunica. About 79% of Tunica visitors arrive by personal vehicle, and another 16% by tour bus. The remaining 5% arrive by air. Visitors must like what they find because about 78% of visitors are likely to return within a year. The average visitor to Tunica makes 2.2 trips per year, stays 3.4 nights per visit, and spends about $762 per visit not including transportation costs.

For more info, call 888.4.TUNICA or visit www.tunicamiss.com.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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