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15 years into it, gaming has had tremendous impact on state

The gaming industry that celebrates its 15th anniversary in Mississippi this year is now collectively one of the larger employers in the state. And the higher wages and benefits — not to mention the taxes — paid by the industry have had a far reaching impact, including jump starting the tourism industry on the Coast and substantially raising the per capita income of one of the poorest counties in the country, Tunica.

“Clearly the advent of gaming in 1992 literally rescued the Gulf Coast of Mississippi as a tourist attraction,” said Jerry St. Pé, chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “I’ve been living here in Pascagoula going on almost 50 years. I paid close attention over the years to quite a few what I would describe as ill-fated starts at trying to bring about a stable tourist business here along the Coast. The same thing is true for different reasons in the northern part of the state. Mississippi has long struggled to become a real true tourist attraction.”

St. Pé said without the advent of gaming, the state would still be stuck where it was in the early 1990s: a region with great potential but nothing else that would attract large numbers of tourists and conventions.

Currently, approximately 29,000 people are directly employed in the gaming industry in the state. Professional organization conventions that used to go out of state now often are held at casino resorts or other convention facilities in the state. And gaming revenues are back to the levels seen pre-Katrina.

“Gaming revenue today on the Coast in the casinos is at or above where it was before the hurricane,” St. Pé said. “Direct employment is exceeding what we had prior to the hurricane.”

Running the numbers

Employment for the 12 operating casinos was 16,254 in August 2005. As of May 1, 2007, there were 16,671 casino employees for the 10 operating casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“Taken collectively, gaming is one of the larger employers in the state,” said Beverly Martin, executive director, Mississippi Casino Operators Association.

Gaming pays higher wages for jobs, which has forced other employers — especially hospitality businesses — in casino areas to pay higher wages and benefits. On the Coast chain restaurants are often offering not just higher pay but sign-up bonuses to new employees. Some are also offering bonuses to employees for bringing in new hires.

Benefits from the gaming industry are among the best found.

“Benefits were good prior to the storm,” Martin said. “But there used to be a waiting period of benefits for employees. Most had a 90-day waiting period. Post Katrina, that has changed. The benefits start the day you start working. I think they are doing that because we have such a low unemployment rate right now. They have some of the best benefits. With the sheer volume of employees they have, it is hard for small, independent businesses to compete with the kind of benefits the casinos have. And it isn’t just insurance. They also have educational opportunities they offer the employees. Most of the casinos offer tuition reimbursement for college credit. Also, most have employee assistance funds that go above and beyond regular benefits. For example, employees can get assistance to help them with unexpected problems such as their house burning down.”

Martin said the gaming industry has made major improvements to the quality of life on the Coast. In addition to direct benefits such as providing high-paying jobs, the casinos have also attracted non gaming amenities to the area that weren’t previously there.

“Probably another 50,000 ancillary jobs have been created,” Martin said.

Year ‘round business

Another benefit she sees is making the Coast a year-round market for visitors. Before gaming, most visitors came in the summer months.

“Our visitor count is up,” she said. “Now with the amenities of casinos like golf courses, that has increased the tourist season to the whole year. We have some of the best golf courses in the U.S., and that has drawn a lot of snowbirds. Then we have the name brand entertainment that goes on throughout the year.”

If anything, gaming has brought about an even more dramatic change in Northwest Mississippi. The gaming industry in Tunica now actually employs more people than there are residents in the county.

“The gaming industry since its arrival in Tunica in 1992 has created roughly 14,000 direct jobs and another spinoff of 2,000 jobs,” said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That is in a county that has about 10,500 residents with a workforce of about 6,000. The industry has not only given employment to people here in Tunica County, but has also created an employment opportunity for the mid-South area as a whole.”

Opportunities abound

Franklin said when you look at the gaming industry and the largest employers in the state, it is important to look past the front line dealers at blackjack and craps tables. The gaming industry is many industries rolled into one.

“You have high-level food and beverage jobs,” Franklin said. “You have the highest level marketing jobs. You have great opportunities in hotel management. You have accounting at its highest level. You have landscaping at its highest level. You have transportation management and security. So when we talk about employment and the gaming industry, it is not just about gambling. There are so many different fields available to Mississippians at the highest level because the gaming industry is here.”

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

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