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Tunica unveils 10-year anniversary plans to state

TUNICA — Today, the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau will launch its 10-year anniversary promotion campaign at a press conference coinciding with the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

“Tunica County, once labeled ‘America’s Ethiopia,’ has been transformed in the last decade and we want to celebrate our progress,” said Webster Franklin, executive director of the Tunica CVB.

The statistics are astonishing: In 1992, Tunica County had revenues of $3.5 million. Today, the county budget is $80 million. In January 1992, Tunica County, with a population of approximately 8,000, had an unemployment rate of 26.2%. The per capita income was $11,875 and the food stamp distribution payments were $259,551. In November 2001, the unemployment rate for Tunica County was 5%, slightly lower than the state average of 5.2%. By 1999, the per capita income had increased to $20,203. Since 1992, the number of Total Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients plunged 90%, and current food stamp payments of $77,145 reflect a 70% reduction.

“There are two sides of the Tunica story we want to share — the economic development success with the creation of 16,000 jobs and developments totaling more than $3 billion, and the human element,” Franklin said. “The 16,000 jobs created have transformed the lives of people who have lived in Tunica County since it was the poorest county in the nation in the 1980s to the third largest gaming destination in the U.S. Our 10-year celebration showcases our achievements and will hopefully create more interest in our corner of the Mississippi Delta.”

When Splash Casino opened at Mhoon Landing in Tunica in 1992, visitors routinely waited two to three hours and paid a $10 cover charge for entry to the gaming floor. Last year, more than 22,000 buses traveled to Tunica, making it the number one motor coach destination in the state.

“On Feb. 18, we’ll unveil our celebration, which will culminate on Oct. 19,” said Franklin. “It will begin with the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, being held in Tunica Feb. 17-20, and will continue with another big event May 15-17. To celebrate the Splash anniversary in October, we have some very special events planned for our ‘Big Bang.’”

A special edition of the Tunica Visitor’s Guide has been prepared for the 10-year anniversary, and print and TV advertising campaigns will incorporate the special logo, especially in Tunica’s key markets of St. Louis, Nashville, Oklahoma City and Little Rock. Tunica County’s 10 casino properties will include it in its promotions, like Fitzgerald’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Key individuals that helped facilitate gaming in Tunica County will be honored at the Tunica Founders Banquet during the May 15-17 event, geared mainly at state legislators. At the banquet, the Tunica CVB will present the first annual tourism awards — Chairman’s, Volunteer Service, Heritage and Tunica County Hall of Fame. After an early morning breakfast on May 16, followed by a forum on gaming and tourism, attendees will tour the county, participate in a golf tournament or try their luck at Grand Casino Tunica’s sporting clay range before an evening cocktail reception.

“We want state lawmakers and leaders to see firsthand the impact gaming and tourism has had on Tunica County, and how Tunica County has contributed to the state’s revenues,” Franklin said.

Franklin, who was recently reelected president of the Mississippi Tourism Association, said tourism in Tunica County has increased 2% since 2001.

“Since Sept. 11, our business has held steady,” he said. “About 92% of our visitors drive from a 500- to 750-mile radius. They are following the national trend of staying closer to home. However, it’s becoming a more competitive market, with neighboring destinations fighting for the same customers rather than competing with another destination halfway across the country.”

Despite the rapid growth of the last decade, construction activity has not settled down in Tunica County. Last January, the groundbreaking was held for a $40-million expansion of the Tunica County Airport. The project will increase the runway length, provide additional hangers and a terminal. When the expansion is complete, the airport will be able to accommodate larger airplanes, such as 727s.

“The airport expansion is well underway,” said Franklin. “The dirt work has been completed and we’re on schedule to finish the first 5,500 feet of the runway in 2003. The second phase, which will increase the runway to 7,000 feet, should be complete by 2005.”

Downtown Tunica, one of the last areas developed during the casino decade, is becoming known as a hub for antique stores and a tourism attraction in itself.

“Visitors from the Midwest come for the gaming experience, the bright lights and the big city shows, but they’re also discovering what small town Mississippi Delta life is all about,” Franklin said. “They’re going to downtown Tunica to see the courthouse, town square and antique shops. All of that is a part of the growing development of our tourism product that people are taking advantage of.”

Within the last two years, Horseshoe Casino & Hotel invested $40 million in gaming amenities by renovating and expanding its buffet restaurant, adding an Asian restaurant and increasing the parking capacity by 10 acres. The Isle of Capri – Tunica opened a $14-million entertainment center as part of its multi-phase expansion plans. Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall spent $21 million in renovations and upgrades. Casino Factory Shoppes completed construction of a 60,000-square-foot expansion of the outlet center.

To keep pace with the developments, services have been added and amenities have been upgraded. Since the casino shuttle service, backed by the Tunica County casino industry, Tunica CVB and Premier Transportation of Memphis, began last year, more than 111,000 passengers have taken advantage of the $1 fare to shuttle between the casino properties.

“It’s been a great success,” Franklin said. “It’s a great service for visitors that want to park once and enjoy the whole gaming destination.”

By this fall, a $4-million expansion project at the Tunica Exposition Center & Arena, which opened in August 2000, should be complete. The expansion will add 240 livestock stalls for a total of 606 stalls and a 92,000-square-foot covered arena with seating for up to 500 patrons.

“The expo center is booked 43 weeks this year,” said Franklin. “It’s amazing to all of us how successful it has been. We didn’t expect to fill up a huge center like that.”

Despite recent heavy rains, Tunica County’s plans to build a $20-million, 168-acre Tunica River Front Park, featuring a marina, visitor’s center and nature trails, are on track. The marina will be dredged from the existing river bank and provide a floating dock to accommodate large excursion boats. The park will also feature a public boat ramp, secondary docking facility to accommodate paddle-wheel riverboats, and a 25,000-square -foot visitor’s center with a river museum, observation deck and aquarium.

“We’re looking for the dock facility to be complete this fall and for the visitors center to be complete by next spring,” Franklin said. “Everything’s on track.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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