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Tunica attracting more visitors as casino charters double in 2007

Tunica continues to grow in reputation and visitorship, all helped by increases in service at the Tunica Airport that are bringing in record numbers of visitors on charter aircrafts to visit the Casino Capital of the South, the largest gaming area between Las Vegas, Nev., and Atlantic City.

“I think the year 2007 will go down as one with major accomplishments for Tunica with the airport improvements being number one,” said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have seen tremendous growth in our airport, and we have had great cooperation on the local, state and federal level in helping our airport grow.”

The Tunica Airport landed its first 737s in November 2005. In 2006, approximately 220 737s landed at the airport. And in the first 11 months of this year, that number had grown to 450 landings by 737 charters at the airport. Approximately 40,000 visitors landed at the airport the first 11 months of 2007. And a new carrier, Allegiant Air, has been announced recently.

“So, we have seen tremendous growth year-to-year from the airport, and a growing commitment by the gaming industry utilizing the airport,” Franklin said. “We worked with our congressional delegation and received funding from Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration to make major improvements extending the runway from 7,000 feet to 8,500. That should be complete in the first quarter of 2008.”

Casino charters come in regularly from all over the country. Franklin said approximately 30 cities are served by charter airplane trips.

Tunica is expected to generate approximately $1.2 billion in gaming revenues in 2007, which amounts to approximately $85 million in gaming taxes paid to the state’s general fund.

Hotel occupancy rates are remaining in the high 80s, and casino properties are spending tens of millions of dollars on their properties to keep them fresh and up to date.

“All our casino properties are re-investing,” Franklin said. “We have just seen a major announcement by Harrah’s corporate to spend $45 million upgrading their 1,300 hotel rooms. Harrah’s has also announced that the first Paula Deen’s Lady and Sons Restaurant outside of Savannah, Ga., will be built at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica.

“Gold Strike has renovated their entire meeting space, and is redoing their 1,200 hotel rooms. We’re seen tremendous upgrades in Fitzgerald’s remodeling their 500 hotel rooms and remodeling the casino floor. Sam’s Town and Hollywood Casino have made similar upgrades to their property. All of it combined shows a confidence by the gaming and tourism industry that Tunica is a strong market and will continue to be so throughout 2008.”

Tunica is now attracting a younger crowd, and visitors are staying longer than in the past. The average age of visitors has dropped from 58 to 54, and visitors are staying an average of 2.8 days. Visitors are finding more things to do, such as playing golf or tennis, taking a trip on the Mississippi River or visiting the 168-acre Tunica RiverPark that includes museum and interpretive center, complete with aquariums, interactive exhibits and dioramas about the Mississippi River. Side trips to Memphis are also popular.

Visitors are also taking time to explore the surrounding Mississippi Delta area.

“The opening of Interstate 69 in October of 2006 has had a big impact on that,” Franklin said. “It has created an ease of travel in the mid-South area that didn’t exist before. It gives our destination and the Mississippi Delta in general direct interstate access for first time. When a community gets direct access, it has a major impact.”

Interstate access has also had a favorable impact on housing developments in the area. Lyn Arnold, president and CEO of the Tunica Chamber of Commerce, said additional housing choices have been on the chamber’s “wish list” for several years.

“We have started several housing developments,” Arnold said. “A private housing development is being constructed around the Tunica National Golf & Tennis Club that is owned by the county. There has been quite a bit of demand for housing in the Tunica area. We have had apartments, but we have just not had many single-family homes available. These are upscale homes and condominiums that are under development. Another development, Canal Park, is building homes primarily focused on retirees. They have been quite successful this year. And a local developer, Jimmy Eubanks, has developed a subdivision just south of the town called Grand Oaks. It has been very successful, as well. We’ve been pleased housing has started and is selling well.”

On another front, Tunica has joined with joined with three other counties in Northwest Mississippi to form a regional alliance for economic development. The group is called M3, which stands for the Mississippi Memphis Metro area. DeSoto, Tate, Pinola and Tunica counties are involved in the alliance that will do joint efforts including marketing together to focus on the Northwest Mississippi area.

“We are hearing from site consultants that no one just locates in one county,” Arnold said. “When a company is looking at locating in an area, they are looking at the region for the available workforce and places to live. Visitors to the area don’t know when they cross a county line. So we have tried to put together the assets of the region.”

Retail developments are also proceeding in Tunica. The Casino Factory Shops is planning an 110,000-square-foot expansion adding more upscale shops to that shopping center. Arnold said there are also a couple of other developers planning large projects who have options on property.

“We’ve will also still be working next year on industrial projects that have looked at Tunica County as we continue to make efforts to expand and diversity the economy,” Arnold said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.


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