GROUNDBREAKING

by

Published: June 30,2008

The economic landscape of Mississippi has dramatically changed since gaming was legalized 16 years ago, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Tunica.

Sixteen years ago, Tunica County had only one stoplight and not a single four-lane highway. There were such high unemployment rates, substandard housing and a lack of essential services that Tunica was the subject of a “60 Minutes” episode on extreme poverty.

“We got a lot of attention in the mid-1980s when ‘60 Minutes’ did an expose here,” says Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But that didn’t provide jobs for citizens. The gaming industry was the first to come in and actually provide jobs for local citizens. About 16,000 jobs have been created in the past 16 years in Tunica.”

There are now actually more people working in the casino industry in Tunica County than live in the county, which has a population of approximately 12,000. And the benefits have stretched far beyond Tunica as casinos in the area have generated $1.2 billion in gaming revenues since gaming began.

“All 82 counties in Mississippi see the benefits of that,” Franklin says. “The casinos have invested billions of dollars in new hotels, restaurants and other amenities. That has led to new housing developments. You have seen our small town of Tunica grow considerably as far as the number of people living there now.

“In the past 16 years, the gaming industry has had a tremendous impact on Tunica County. Tax dollars paid by that industry have been reinvested raising the quality of life for the citizens who live here. You would be hard pressed to find new industry that has provided this amount of tax dollars to our state and local community. The quality of life has definitely risen for all folks who work in Tunica or call Tunica home.”

Gaming + tourism

Another significant impact is on tourism in the state. People are attracted by the casinos, and then find Mississippi has more to offer than they realized.

“What the gaming industry has done is bring people into our state for the first time from all over the country,” Franklin says. “They are experiencing what we are in Mississippi, and going home and saying to friends, ‘Mississippi is a great place to visit and maybe a great place to live.’ The gaming industry has changed stereotypical images of Mississippi, and I think that is an impact that is too large to measure.”

It’s hard to put a figure on the positive impact created by the millions of dollars in advertising the industry does to attract attention to itself and the state, says Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway.

“The casino industry in Biloxi today employs just as many or more people than it did before the storm, more than 15,000 people,” Holloway says. “Just as important as the jobs are the millions of visitors the casino resort industry attracts to Biloxi and the Coast on an annual basis. We’ve been able to improve our quality of life, which was one of the promises made when gaming was legalized. We’ve been able to upgrade our infrastructure to meet the challenges of increased tourism and traffic. And, finally, this industry in Biloxi has been able to contribute more than $871 million in gaming taxes to the state alone, which is money that the Legislature can use to improve the life of residents across the state, whether their community has gaming or not. People should realize that they are being impacted in a positive way whether they live in Biloxi or Belzoni.”

Extraordinary impact
Ho

loway says the total economic impact in gaming taxes alone is extraordinary. The industry in Biloxi has generated more than $1.3 billion in taxes to state and local governments including $871 million to the state, $259 million to Biloxi, $98 million to Harrison County, $69.7 million to Biloxi Schools and county schools, $34.8 million.

“There’s also the thousands of hours of community volunteer projects and the millions of dollars in donations the industry has made,” Holloway says. “For years, people have compared the casino resort industry with Keesler Air Force Base, which was once the bedrock of our economy. Both the resort industry and Keesler are vital to our economy. On any given day, you’ll find about 12,000 uniformed personnel and civilians at Keesler. In terms of taxes and jobs created, the casino industry may have more of an impact than Keesler, but both are vital to our economy.”

The amount of impact of the casino generating jobs in support industries is also considerable. Some sources estimate that every casino job equates to a job outside the industry. Holloway isn’t sure if it is that high, but it’s certainly significant.

“Some worried about casino resorts having hotel rooms and restaurants and what impact that would have on the local establishments,” Holloway says. “I think what happened is the pie got bigger and there was more business for everyone. And, of course, where would we be today with the casino resort industry? Truth be told, about 75% of the casino resort hotel inventory is back up and running, while only about 25% of the independent, smaller hotels and motels are back.”

Along with the 30,000-plus jobs it has brought to the state, the gaming industry has invested more than $5 billion, creating world-class venues that offer entertainment, hotels, restaurants, luxury spas, shopping and golf courses, says Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

“These large, publicly traded companies consider Mississippi because of its stable regulatory environment, and their investment here generates more than $330 million in taxes annually,” Gregory says.

Looking back over the past 50 years he has been in Mississippi, Jerry St. Pé, chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, says the advent of casino gaming has to be listed as one of the top new developments with a profound and lasting impact on the state’s economy.

“I would put a couple others in that category, and one is obviously Ingalls Shipbuilding, which in the 1960s revolutionized shipbuilding and allowed shipbuilding to continue as state’s largest single industrial employer,” says St. Pé, who formerly was president of Ingalls. “Chevron Refinery in Pascagoula has billions in continued investment in Mississippi going back to 1961 when the first facilities at the refinery were built. And then in more recent times the automotive industry has had a major impact on the state. But there is no way not to place the casino industry in that top five category. Every dimension of this industry has had a profound impact on the economy and the quality of life not just on the Coast, but the entire State of Mississippi giving millions in tax revenues providing for infrastructure improvements across the state.”

The gaming industry took a huge hit from Hurricane Katrina, but afterwards pulled out all stops to rebuild.

“In terms of economic recovery, the gaming industry was the first responders,” St. Pé says. “The shipyard came back relatively quickly, and then casinos got back online beginning in December a few months after the hurricane. I don’t think there is any question if the casino industry had delayed at coming back, we would have been looking at a different recovery timeline than today. The thing that made it possible was a special session in September that allowed onshore gaming in Mississippi. If that hadn’t happened, I think gaming would have gone the way of black-and-white televisions sets. They would have been extinct, gone.”

Rich Westfall, director of community development for the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, says the casino industry was able to lead the way in recovery aided by the onshore gaming legislation that was put into law after Katrina allowing Coast casinos to open faster providing jobs and revenue.

“However, we would not where we are today without the great leadership at the state and local level, the faith-based organizations and volunteers and the can do spirit of the people on the Coast,” Westfall says. “The casino industry provided an economic spark to Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I credit the leaders and the citizens of this area for taking advantage of the spark to develop a state-of-the-art school system, improved roads, public safety and overall quality of life.”

Mississippi now is the third-largest gaming destination in the country. According to the American Gaming Association, there are 29 casinos operating in Mississippi employing over 30,000 people. Total wages for 2008 are expected to be $950 million including tips. Gross gaming revenue for 2008 is expected to reach $2.8 billion.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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