INDEED, the biggest transformation in the Delta, the arrival of legalized gambling, wasn’t even addressed by the commission.
In 1990, the state of Mississippi authorized riverboat casinos along “Old Man River” and the Gulf of Mexico coast, enacting one of the most liberal gaming laws in the nation. Tunica became the first Delta county to jump aboard, beginning an unprecedented land rush and the construction of giant mega-gaming palaces. Today, Tunica County has nine casinos, and it remains one of the nation’s top gambling destinations. “America’s Ethiopia” has attracted as many as 14 million visitors a year since casinos opened; gaming has generated more than $40 million a year in tax revenues for the county, according to Lyn Arnold, president of the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation. It has paid for new schools, new roads and sewers, an airport with an 8,500-foot runway, a health-and-wellness center, three community centers, and many other amenities.
From the beginning, there have been clear winners in the gambling game. The landowners who unloaded flood-prone acreage made out like bandits. A Memphis businessman made a fortune by locking up billboard rights along U.S. 61 in the early 1990s; a Texas-based media conglomerate owns the signs now. The region’s media still lean heavily on casino advertising.
But like any game of chance, there have been losers too. While some tourists who go to the casinos visit nearby Memphis to see Elvis Presley’s Graceland and the clubs on Beale Street, the Tennessee city has trouble competing due to the lack of the draw of gambling. W.W. Herenton, who resigned as Memphis’s mayor this July after an unprecedented 17 years in office, pushed for legalized gaming in Tennessee, hoping to stanch the loss of tax revenue, but he couldn’t overcome the resistance from lawmakers in Nashville.
But if Herenton was looking for a magic bullet to solve the city’s socioeconomic troubles, he may have been looking in the wrong place.
In her 2006 study of the Delta, Sharon Wright Austin, PhD, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida (and a Memphis native), says the casinos haven’t solved the deep-seated problems of the region. Austin presented evidence in her book, The Transformation of Plantation Politics: Black Politics, Concentrated Poverty, and Social Capital in the Mississippi Delta, that contradicted the spin gaming promoters had peddled as gospel.
Casinos, she found, didn’t have much of a positive impact outside Tunica County; moreover, even in Tunica, they really didn’t address the structural problems of poverty. Because of the relatively low wages paid to employees, casinos did little more than transform the unemployed poor into the working poor, she says.
“Before the casinos opened, unemployment in Tunica County was always in the double-digits, even exceeding 20 percent. But it was always the case, during the period I researched, [that] even though unemployment was low, people were still poor and the poverty rate was high,” Austin says.
So Tunica has looked for ways to diversify, to give tourists more reasons to visit and stay in the region. Golf has become a significant draw, for example, as Tunica now has three quality courses. And local promoters are embracing the blues in a big way: They have plans to open a $2 million Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center in 2010 along U.S. 61. The center, which will be based in a relocated train depot, will feature museum-quality exhibits on loan from Harrah’s Tunica.
“It’s kind of funny -- when you grow up with it at your front door, you sometimes don’t recognize the value it has for other people,” Arnold says. “But we get a lot of international visitors who come through here to follow the Blues Trail.”
“The culture and heritage of the Delta is something we need to be marketing,” says Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is leading the promotional effort. “What I hope happens is that we’ll draw the blues enthusiasts to the state and give them an authentic experience while they’re here, and that at the same time, they’ll stay in our hotels and hopefully play a few slot machines. But the greater impact is if we can get many of those gaming patrons to learn a little more about the heritage of the area and get out and explore more. It’d be good for the economy of the whole region.”