When the state’s first casinos opened in 1992, no one was sure what gambling’s impact would be — good or bad. Proponents held high hopes for its economic potential. Opponents feared the downside for residents and their communities.
In 20 years since that uncertain first roll of the dice, the numbers tell the story. The 30 commercial casinos on the Gulf Coast and along the Mississippi River have created thousands of jobs and generated billions of dollars in revenue. According to the annual report by the Mississippi Casino Operators Association, last year the gaming industry accounted for $4.26 billion in direct economic activity, 25,000 jobs and 20 million visits from out-of-state patrons.
Casino towns have been transformed, the tourism industry has been rejuvenated and charities and nonprofits have benefited like never before. Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway recalled that when the Isle of Capri Casino’s small riverboats opened in August 1992, “No one envisioned the scope or the impact of gaming would have on Biloxi and the Mississippi Coast for the next 20 years.”
A report the city prepared said the billion-dollar-a-year industry has allowed Biloxi “to invest tens of millions of dollars in public education and public safety, keep property taxes in check and generally reduce user fees for residents while expanding and enhancing their day-to-day city services.”
Biloxi credits gambling with bringing more than $6 billion in construction and adding 15,000 jobs, increasing visitors from one million a year to about nine million annually and more than doubling the city’s hotel room inventory to 9,200. A similar story unfolded in Tunica.
Its first casino, Splash, opened its doors at Mhoon Landing in October 1992. Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau, recalled that the small casino atop a barge was in effect “a floating nightclub.” There were three-hour waits to get inside and customers had to pay $10 to get in. Franklin said that prior to Splash, Tunica County had an unemployment rate of 26.2 percent. The casino created 15,000 direct jobs at its peak employment in 2006 and has 11,500 today as the result of downsizing and the economy.
Schools have been upgraded and health and wellness programs help the youth and elderly of the county. Tunica had 20 hotel rooms prior to the casino opening and today there are more than 6,300 rooms.
“Splash created an economic boon and good paying jobs that led to a better quality of life,” he said. “We attribute that all to the gaming industry,” he said. Scott King, director of research and policy for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Business Council, said the state’s 30 commercial casinos employ about 25,000 people directly and another 10,000 jobs are created by vendor who sell produce, food and beverage to the casinos.
Casinos reported $2.4 billion in gaming revenues in 2011, down about 6.4 percent from the year before, according to the Casino Operators Association latest report. He cites the Mississippi Development Authority’s projection that about $1.8 billion of the annual gaming revenues comes from visitors to the state. “Gaming isn’t something that cannibalizes non-gaming tourism, it enhances it. It truly is an export.” King said he hasn’t seen any research to suggest that “Mississippi has a gaming problem anymore than any other state does.” And, he said, the state “has not seen a huge influence of crime.” Biloxi officials said in their 20-year report that fears of increased crime as a result of casinos did not come true. They claim that with more money invested in public safety, the crime rate has been lowered. Larry Gregory, head of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association, called compulsive gambling “the first and foremost social impact” and said the industry works hard to ensure that people “aren’t out there throwing their savings away.” There are numerous programs to help combat the problem, and all casino employees receive training on spotting compulsive gamblers. When Gregory was head of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, he said he started a self-exclusion program for people who recognize they have a gambling problem. He said about 1,200 people are voluntarily on the list. “The other social aspect we’re very proud of is giving back to the community,” Gregory said. “It would be safe to say that casinos are one of the largest donors to charities on the Gulf Coast and Tunica.”
As just one example, Beau Rivage employees in Biloxi raised $187,000 for nonprofits serving South Mississippi and coastal Alabama during the 2012 MGM Resorts International Foundation employee-giving campaign. That brings the total to more than $2 million since 2002. Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, the industry’s regulator, called the casino companies good corporate citizens who “give a lot back to the communities” in the way of donations to charities and volunteering their time.