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Tunica: Down, not out

Some attractions not closed by rising river

As the City of Tunica nervously watches the rising Mississippi River, it is trying to get the word out that it is still open for business. The flooding river has caused the staggered closing of the Delta community’s nine casinos and the Tunica RiverPark has been closed and its artifacts relocated.

The community is also down 4,600 hotel rooms, and can now only offer approximately 1,300 rooms to visitors.

However, the Veranda and Terrace Hotels at Harrah’s property on the east side of the levee, Harrah’s Convention Center, Bellissimo Spa at Harrah’s, Cottonwoods Golf Course, Tunica National Golf & Tennis and Casino Factory Shoppes are all open and will remain open for business as usual.

“We’re limited as far as gaming and hotel rooms,” said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but if you want to eat, play some great golf, shop — come on.”

Franklin said the area has already seen cancellations, but that the casino properties have been proactive, contacting booked parties and trying to accommodate them. As example, Franklin said one party booked with an area casino is actually going to hold their event in a “competitor’s” property.

“The casinos are working together,” he said. “They know they have to.”

While the city is still welcoming visitors, the impact of the Mississippi River flood is a body blow to a community reeling from the downturn in the economy. The Tunica market has declined 25 percent since 2006. The 8 percent gaming tax generated $93 million for the state and $47 million for Tunica County in 2006. Last year’s collections for the state were $23 million less (at $70 million) and $12 million less (at $35 million) for the county.

The area has also seen a loss of 3,400 jobs during that period, equating to over $68 million in annual payroll. Now, approximately 9,300 jobs have been displaced with an approximate $18 million monthly payroll. (Most casinos have announced that they will be compensating their employees for a minimum of two weeks during the event, but the situation is different at each property.)

The negative impact will be felt across the state. According to figures supplied by the Tunica CVB, the average gross gaming revenue from Tunica’s nine casinos during the month of May over the past three years is approximately $87 million. Closing the casinos for the month would lead to a combined $10 million loss in local ($3.54 million) and state ($7.08 million) gaming tax revenue. The approximately 4,600 closed hotel rooms equates to $6.21 million in lost room revenue per month (assuming 75 percent occupancy at $60 per night). And, the closing of all nine casinos affects 38 percent of the state’s gaming square footage, or 521,410 square feet.

There is also the loss of the 168-acre Tunica RiverPark with its Museum and Interpretive Center, EcoTrail, riverboat cruises on the Tunica Queen and Mississippi River Overlook. The museum has been closed, and its artifacts transported to a climate-controlled facility in DeSoto County. Everything else on the first floor moveable was carried to the second floor of the facility.

With preparedness plans well underway, the community now turns to the future. How long will the flood last, and what will the extent of the damage be?

The river-side facilities were expected to be closed for a minimum of three to six weeks. However, that could change depending on just how deep the river gets and how long it takes for the floodwaters to recede.

For Tunica, the dreaded number is “48.” Right now, the issue is access — visitors and employees cannot safely get in and out of the river-side facilities. No facilities had water in them at press time.

However, if the river gauge reaches 48 feet, Tunica would see facilities start to take on water. The current crest forecast for Memphis is exactly 48 feet May 11. (The record is 48.7 feet in 1937.)

Franklin said that leaves a burning question — will the area just be looking at a major clean-up effort once the floodwaters recede, or will it be facing a major rebuild?

“No one wants to see our area’s chief industry facing such a profound loss in profits, but our casino partners acted quickly and proactively in order to safeguard the safety of their employees and patrons,” said Franklin. “The closing of our nine casino properties will only exacerbate an already major economic crisis on a state and local level.

“It is our hope that the rising water will recede rapidly; however, if it gets as high as predicted, our situation becomes even more perilous. A crest of 48 feet has the real potential to cause structural damage to our casinos and further delay our area’s recovery.”

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