Tunica Casinos Want Lawmakers to Eliminate Riverboat Laws

Tunica Riverboat Casino Laws

MGM Gold Strike is the only Tunica casino with a concert venue that draws nationally known acts.

Tunica Strip casino operators are pressuring the Mississippi State Legislature to ease riverboat casino restrictions, allowing the operations to move inland. The nine remaining Tunica casinos say lack of space and concerns about flooding on the waterfront hold back investments to modernize the riverboat operations.

When casinos were built in Tunica County in the 1990s, the only places with casino gambling in the United States were Nevada and Atlantic City. With tribal gaming and subsequent commercial casinos in dozens of US states, most Americans have a casino with a 2-hour to 3-hour drive.

At their peak, Tunica casinos employed over 14,000 Mississippi workers. According to the Mississippi Gaming & Hospitality Association, the number of employees now stands at 5,037. Each year shows a dropoff in revenues, meaning more employees are likely to lose their jobs in the coming years.

2-Year Revenue Decline of 8%

In 2015, Tunica’s nine casinos generated $644 million in revenues. In 2016, the number dropped to $630 million, a loss of 2%. Compared to 2014, the 2-year decline was 8%. As recently as 2006, the revenue total was $1.7 billion. While Hurricane Katrina damaged Gulf Coast casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport, it drove customers to the Tunica Strip, so numbers rose from $1.5 billion in 2005 to the peak year of $1.7 billion.

Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, told WREG News Channel 3 out of Memphis that those days are long gone. Three decades after they opened, Tunica casinos are doing all they can to lure customers, but it has not worked.

Webster Franklin: Land Casinos Would Lead to Investment

Mr. Franklin said in an interview with the TV station, “When we opened you could gamble in Nevada and Atlantic City and those were the only two places. People from mid-America flocked here. Today, every American is in a two-and-a-half-hour drive to a casino.”

He added later in the interview, “If we could let the existing properties reinvest on land here in Tunica County and make this a more modern-day casino strip, I think we’d be more competitive in the long term.”

Tunica’s casinos are not actually in the city of Tunica, population 1,000. Instead, the riverboat operations are about 10 miles down the road in Robinsonville, on the banks of the Mississippi River. That location was fine in an earlier day, but it takes much different types of resorts to draw customers these days.

How Destination Casinos Work

In 2017, casinos which want to draw a wider spectrum of visitors need to build destination resorts, also known as integrated casino-resorts. These gaming venues have non-gaming amenities and attractions, so a gambler might bring their whole family to enjoy the vacation. Where casinos once wanted hardcore gamblers and didn’t much care about anyone else, the business model now calls for some combination of restaurants, retail stores, spas, exhibitions, convention centers, movie theaters, and concert venues.

Concert centers are a key feature, because they bring in concertgoers of a certain age who then play in the casino. MGM’s Gold Strike Casino is the only Tunica resort capable of drawing major acts. Over the next couple of months, its 800-seat Millennium Theatre will host comedian Bill Engvall, the 90s alt-band Gin Blossoms, and Oak Ridge Boys Christmas Celebration. Such acts might not play to the millennial crowd, but — depending on the act — they draw gamblers of the Baby Boomer generation or Generation X who have a bit more disposable income to spend.

Thus, owners of the Tunica Strip casinos have begun to lobby Mississippi lawmakers to repeal the riverboat gaming act and allow land-based casino resorts. It’s a trend that is gaining momentum in other parts of the country — including Indiana and Illinois — where states realized they would generate more tax revenues and create more jobs if they allowed brick-and-mortar casinos with amenities. In a country full of land-based casinos, restricting gambling to venues floating on waterways (but chained to dry ground) no longer seem like the only way to go — or the best way.

Penn National Gaming’s Investment

Some are still bullish on Tunica County. In May 2017, Penn National Gaming bought Bally’s Casino and Resorts Casino for $44 million. Penn National since has renamed Bally’s the 1st Jackpot Casino. Penn National should understand the market; it has been a Tunica County casino operator since 2003, when the Pennsylvania-based gaming company bought the Hollywood Casino in Tunica.