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Dirt-poor town grows bumper crop of casinos : The Mississippi gambling mecca is still poor, just not as much, as the state provides fertile soil for a booming gaming industry.

October 06, 1994|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUNICA, Miss. — Only a short while ago, Tunica County was known as the poorest county in the poorest state in the Union. One part of the town of Tunica was called Sugar Ditch Alley because the poor folk there dumped raw sewage into a ditch that ran past their tumbledown shacks. This didn't change until the mid-1980s.

Tunica still is poor--it ranks fourth in poverty in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau--but you'd never know it from the glitzy casinos that seem to sprout overnight here like crawfish mounds from the black Delta mud.

Since 1992, 12 casinos have opened in the sparsely populated county, making it one of the larger gambling meccas in the United States. In all, Mississippi now has 31 casinos and, with $1 billion in gambling revenues, ranks third in gambling proceeds behind Nevada and New Jersey. The casinos have created 35,000 jobs.

Unlike the 26 other states that have authorized casino gambling, Mississippi has placed few demands and restrictions on the companies that set up shop here. The state's calculated gamble has been criticized by those who say the state has frittered away an opportunity to link the fledgling casino industry with other kinds of development. The Mississippi Gaming Commission is now considering requiring new casinos to be linked to hotels or some other type of development.

But in general, state gaming officials say that an unfettered market will help the state grow a healthier and more highly developed casino industry. "I think the growth of our market validates that approach," said Chuck Patton, deputy director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

Most of the state's casinos are on the Gulf Coast. Unlike the coast, which can boast of beaches, restaurants and motels, Tunica County has little to offer visitors except endless vistas of cotton fields. That means that the casinos have catered almost exclusively to day-trippers, many of them from nearby Memphis.

The Tunica County casinos are a sight to behold: gaudy, outrageous and huge. The state's initial idea was to restrict them to the Mississippi River, but the rules have been loosened. Although they all are on the river side of the levee and all were floated into place, the dredged-out channels were later filled in so that the newer casinos have no visible connection to the water.

Unlike the riverboat casinos that plied the Mississippi a century ago, these hulking apparitions seem about as indigenous as boll weevils in Alaska.

The Hollywood casino is an Art Deco movie palace with plastic palms inside and out and a helicopter dangling from the ceiling. Circus Circus looks like a big tent, right down to cruising clowns. Sam's Town poses as a Wild West outpost. The one casino that has a water theme is the Treasure Bay, which is a gigantic pirate ship with a mermaid on its prow.

The casino that did draw on the South for its theme, ironically, was the first to go bankrupt. The Southern Belle casino shut at the end of August. Two other Tunica County casinos have closed recently, prompting concerns that the market may be saturated.

Still, the stream of tourist dollars flowing south prompted Memphis city officials to try to get the Legislature to approve gambling in Tennessee and discuss recruiting a tribe of Native Americans, who are not as bound by state gambling laws, to open a casino in the city. Both efforts failed.

"The (Tunica County) casinos are the biggest thing that ever happened to Memphis," said a Circus Circus waitress who did not want her name used. "Memphis is not really that big a tourist town. There's Graceland and not much else."

The Tunica casinos may face competition elsewhere, however. A casino in nearby West Memphis, Ark., is planned, if voters approve a gambling measure in November. Alabama and Florida also are set to consider gambling proposals, and what is being billed as the world's biggest casino is scheduled to open in New Orleans in 1996.

But Patton insists that Tunica County, along with the rest of the state, will emerge with a mature casino industry still capable of drawing tourists. He predicts that casinos eventually will begin more ambitious projects to stay competitive.

There is, for example, the 2,000-acre development in Tunica County that would include hotels, restaurants, golf and housing now being planned by a partnership of Gaming Corp. of America and Grand Casinos Inc. Mississippi officials are aware that bribery allegations resulted in Gaming Corp. losing a casino license in Wisconsin. Patton said that the development is moving more slowly than expected, and company officials have been asked to provide an update of their plans at the commission's next meeting, Oct. 13.

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