Tunica County Residents Question Casino Economy, Local Leaders

Tunica County Casino Closures

Industry experts believe more Tunica County closures are likely in the coming months and years.

As Tunica Roadhouse was preparing to close for business this past wweek, a number of local residents discussed the rise and fall of Tunica County with national newspapers. Tunica County once was the third-leading casino destination city in America, behind only Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

The area is facing serious struggles after a decade-plus decline in revenues. The increasingly fragmented casino market is the reason for the decline. As states along the Mississippi River added commercial and tribal casinos, the market became saturated and local.

At one time not so long ago, casinos were the answer for Tunica County’s residents. Times were goods. The community’s leaders used the funds to build an airport to draw in more visitors. Their kids’ played in new sports stadiums and indoor arenas.

All of it seems a waste to so many these days. With its better days behind it, many of those left behind wonder if the funds could have been invested in improvements for the future.

Tunica County, Mississippi

Most will admit the area is in better condition than it was in the old days. Or at least they believe their elders when told that’s that case.

Tunica County is a Mississippi Delta county in the northwestern part of Mississippi, about 30 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. Historically, it has been one of the poorest counties in the United States. In the mid-1980s, when the poverty rate in the county was 50%, Jesse Jackson called Tunica County “America’s Ethiopia”.

Hope came when Mississippi lawmakers legalized riverboat casinos in the 1990s. Casino developers from Las Vegas, Reno, and Pennsylvania built resorts in the county. The local city of Robinsonville renamed itself Tunica Resorts. By 2006, casino tax revenues in the state grew to $1.6 billion.

Tunica’s Rise and Fall

Tunica County’s tax revenues also swelled, while many of the county’s 10,000 residents worked at the casinos. It was the good times, or at least the best times the county had seen. Tax revenues declined to $885 million, almost half of the peak years, in 2017.

Over the generation when the casinos peaked, the poverty rate dropped to 29% — a vast improvement for 20% of the population, but still an appalling statistic that’s 2.5 times the national level. As more Tunica County casinos close, locals have grown contemplative of what-might-have-been.

The Pros and Cons of Casinos

Even now, one can find a wide difference of opinion. James Dunn, who works as the Tunica County Board of Supervisors’ president, said the casinos’ legacy in the area is positive. Dunn said, “The gaming industry brought Tunica into the 21st century.”

He’s right to a degree. Any initiative which raised 20% of the population out of poverty has its positive side. Critics of the casino economy have two complaints. One, was the casino business model sustainable to begin with? Two, did local officials do enough to build for the future during the windfall years?

Marilyn Young, the director at the Tunica County Workforce Development Center, said criticism should not go only to local officieals. Young said, “The casinos have a lot of resources. I think they could give back a bit more.”

Tunica Resorts Tax Revenues

The casino operators would say they are business people. Their job is to create jobs and pay taxes, then let the local residents and the people they elect do the rest. The problem is the casinos no longer create jobs the way they once did. At a peak 12,000 people work in Tunica County casinos, but that number has dropped to 4,000 currently.

Like Atlantic City in 2014, the city of Tunica Resorts is facing the loss of its tax base. When casinos close and sit empty, property taxes for all the remaining casinos decline. When 8,000 jobs are lost in a region with a small population, the bottom falls out on local tax collection.

Kevin Drake, a 32-year old firefighter for the North Tunica County Fire Department, is one of those dealing with the fallout of a rapidly declining tax base. Drake said, This county is tumbling slowly.

When Jenny Jarvie of the Los Angeles Times visited with Mr. Drake, he was about to meet with local officials to discuss the future of the department. Drake fears half the force will be laid off. The rumor is they might be replaced with volunteer firefighters. At the meeting, no decision was reached on what should be done with the fire department.

Bartender Faces 2nd Closure in 5 Years

Local firefighters are not the only ones coping with job uncertainties. In fact, it is a widespread condition throughout Tunica County these days. It all comes back to the series of casino closures over the past few years.

Roosevelt Hall, a 38-year old bartender who worked at the Grand Tunica before he worked at Tunica Roadhouse, spoke to a L.A. Times reporter about searching for a new job as the Tunica Roadhouse prepared to close.

Mr. Hall lost his job in 2014 when the Caesars Entertainment closed the Grand Tunica. He found employment at the Tunica Roadhouse, another Caesars property, but with that closure of a second casino in less than 5 years, the veteran casino employee is thinking twice about finding employment at one of the remain seven casinos in the area.

As he stopped for cigarettes on the Casino Strip Resort Boulevard, Roosevelt Hall said, “I’m so tired of being laid off. If I get another job at another casino, will it stay open or will it close?”

Dondrell McKay, a 30-year-old security guard at the Tunica Roadhouse, shares the same thought. McKay, who was standing in an empty hallway at the Roadhouse’s entrance, added, “There’s no future in casinos. I’m done with casinos.”

Local Official on Bad Public Policy

Joe Eddie Hawkins, 65, a longtime community activist who serves as Tunica County’s road manager, said as he drove through the streets of Tunica Resorts, “So many lost chances of really making a change. Would you think a county that got almost a billion dollars from the casinos, a county of just 10,000 people, would look like this?”

Much of the blame goes to local officials, who wasted hundreds of millions of dollars by building airports, sports arenas, and gymnasiums the area did not need. Officials, who were mainly white in a largely African-American county, cut property taxes and casino taxes instead of investing in education or jobs.

Hawkins says the officials are not fully to blame. He believes residents should have pressured the local government to make better decisions during the good times.

Retired Casino Employee on Squandered Cash

Larry James, a 62-year old retiree who worked as a chef and restaurant manager for local casinos, toured Sugar Ditch Alley on the outskirts of Tunica. Surveying the rusty trailers on lots made of gravel and mud, James came to the same conclusion that Joe Eddie Hawkins did.

The former casino employee said, “They built a few million-dollar buildings, a lot of things that weren’t necessary. An aquatic center? A practice soccer field? They could have reconstructed this entire neighborhood.”