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Gaming, commercial and industrial growth add up

Although Northwest Mississippi is a six-hour drive from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the state as a whole changed due to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Tunica stepped up to the plate to market its destination aggressively in an attempt to make up some of the gaming revenues lost by the devastation of the Gulf Coast casinos.

Webster Franklin, president and CEO, Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said the Tunica gaming industry joined with the State of Mississippi, Tunica County and the CVB to market Tunica as a destination to help continue visitation to the state of Mississippi while one of the state’s largest tourism areas was in the recovery and rebuilding mode.

“We put together a $2.1-million advertising campaign that went to Tunica’s traditional market of St. Louis, Little Rock, Nashville and Huntsville,” Franklin said. “But we also went into new markets that might have typically gone to the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Atlanta, Birmingham and Mobile/Pensacola. The campaign was successful in increasing gaming revenues to Tunica market by 11% over the year. I think the campaign and joint effort by state, county and gaming industry really helped offset the potential losses in the tourism industry by being aggressive in marketing this area of the state. That will show benefits for many years to come.”

Gaming revenues for the State of Mississippi were at full recovery by the end of the year compared to what they were prior to Katrina.

“I think that is an amazing thing, and everyone who is associated with this industry should be proud and this state should be grateful,” Franklin said. “There are a lot of things that went into making that happen both here in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast.”

Other key events include improvements at the Tunica Airport. Over the past year, about 25,000 passengers have come in on 737s. For the first time Tunica had scheduled air service three times a week to Atlanta from Pan Am.

“That was a tremendous step for our destination, proving we can have a market for scheduled air service,” Franklin said. “The contract was not renewed, but we proved there is demand for the service. The last plane out had 137 out of 141 seats filled. I think you will see scheduled service return to the area in the very near future. This was a significant event that proved we can handle scheduled services here in the Tunica market.”

That other big impact on transportation front was the opening of Interstate 69. It is the first time that part of the Delta has been served by an interstate. Each time access has been improved to the area, the market has grown.

“I think with the interstate and the upgrades to airport, this market in Northwest Mississippi will really continue to thrive from a tourism aspect, economic development aspect, and from a community development aspect, as well,” Franklin said. “Because of the I-69 opening, we have had the announcement of Riverbend Crossing at I-69 and Highway 61 where it dead ends. This is a major housing development that includes a tourism component.”

There have also been two major housing developments announced at the golf and tennis club Tunica National. And 750 acres was sold for additional housing development at Indian Creek in Tunica County east of Sam’s Town, Hollywood and Resorts casinos.

Lyn Arnold, president and CEO of the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce, said the housing developments that have been announced are something they been working on for several years. When the developments are built out, which is projected in five to 10 years, there will be 3,000 additional housing units in Tunica County. The houses will range in price from $130,000 to $500,000.

“Both of these developments are very nice, master-planned developments with upscale amenities connected to them, which offer a really great lifestyle,” Arnold said. “Even though we have had nice population growth the past couple of years, I think with the housing developments you will see the population grow exponentially.”

Arnold said tourism also had a strong year with more conventions. Gaming revenues are up, and the number of room-nights was up considerably.

“We think we saw a little of that still because of Katrina, but also there are more attractions now and the area is reaching more of a tourism destination in its own right,” Arnold said. “At one point in the year, we became the second-largest fly-in destination for gaming in the country, eclipsing Atlantic City to come in second behind Las Vegas.”

DeSoto County has seen strong industrial, residential and commercial activity in 2006. In fact, in the third quarter of this year, DeSoto County was home to one million of the 1.2 million square feet of industrial space absorbed in the Memphis market.

Jim Flanagan, president, DeSoto County Economic Development Council, said the county will end the year with 13 existing industry expansions and 14 new companies.

It recently opened a FedEx ground facility, and Baptist Memorial Hospital DeSoto a new 10-story bed tower, $175-million project, opened this year.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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