Residents Wanted 

Tunica's rising tide lifts many, but not all, boats.

Tunica County, once the poorest county in Mississippi and now one of the richest, is finding out that there are some things money can't buy. One of them is residents. With a population of about 10,000 people, Tunica County has collected over $200 million in gambling taxes since the casinos came in 1993. The money flows in at the rate of about $4 million a month, enough to fund two new schools, a golf course, miles of new roads, an arena, an airport that will be able to handle jets, a river park and marina, dozens of new law enforcement vehicles, a library expansion, and much more. And as long as there are gamblers, the money will keep on coming because Mississippi law lets the handful of counties with riverboat casinos take a 4 percent tax levy while the rest of the state shares another 8 percent. Jobs are plentiful. Three new banks, a half dozen new government buildings, landscaped sidewalks, and a park have dressed up downtown. The open sewer known as “Sugar Ditch,” which once brought national notoriety to Tunica, is long gone thanks to $20 million in water and sewer improvements. To ice the cake, in September Tunica did away with city property taxes altogether. For all the apparent prosperity, however, people are not eager to live here. The casinos have created 14,000 jobs in Tunica County, but most of the employees commute to Memphis or DeSoto County, Mississippi. Tunica County’s estimated population of 10,000 is only about 10 percent more than it was in 1990, before casinos. ”That’s not good growth for a county having the type of economic activity we have had,” says County Administrator Ken Murphree. “We’ve had to compete with the perception that the quality of life is better in DeSoto County.” With no casinos, DeSoto County gets only a small share of state gambling taxes, yet it is the fastest-growing county in the state, with a population pushing 100,000. Its public and private schools are jammed, and its major roads are lined with shopping malls, churches, and new subdivisions. Seven years after the onset of gambling, Tunica still has no major grocery store, 24-hour drugstore, or movie theater. There are clusters of new apartments for casino workers stuck out in the middle of cotton and soybean fields but little new single-family housing. The Tunica public schools are under state supervision for poor academic performance. The enrollment is all black and mostly poor. Drought, combined with the casinos’ appetite for land for roads, golf courses, and hotels, has driven away some of the farmers that were the backbone of Tunica’s old agricultural economy. “I think we”ve kept losing people since 1990,” says Brooks Taylor, editor and publisher of The Tunica Times. “Farming is depressed, and my husband’s a farmer. Crops are just awful. Everything is dried up.” The casinos, on the other hand, have been triple winners. They earn over $1.2 billion a year, making Tunica the third most popular casino center in the country behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Mississippi’s combined state/local tax rate of 12 percent is lowest of all the states with riverboat gambling; Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois take at least 20 percent. And in Tunica, a large share of gambling tax revenue goes right back into infrastructure and amenities that mainly benefit the casinos, including $50 million of roads, a $38 million airport with a 7,000-foot runway (the county’s share is $12 million), and a $10 million marina for touring riverboats. By comparison, an adult literacy program got only $30,000 last year from the casino windfall and had to rely on United Way for an additional $68,000 in funding. Betty Jo Dulaney, director of the Tunica County Literacy Council, estimates that half the adults in Tunica County are illiterate. “Most of the people that come to this program do not read well enough to pass the G.E.D., which is what employers require for skilled jobs,” she says. When the board of supervisors met in August to approve the $74 million budget for fiscal year 2001, the literacy council got only an additional $24,000. It isn’t that Tunica has ignored the needs of its own citizens. Twelve percent of all casino revenues, or about $25 million to date, goes to the Tunica County Board of Education. The county has hired a full-time housing director to help people with home ownership. The library has more than doubled in size and circulation, and there are new ballfields and an indoor public recreation center. If gambling’s rising tide has not lifted all boats, even social activists like Sister Gus Griffin of Tunica’s Catholic Social Services agree it has lifted many of them. ÒI think it’s amazing the number of families who, once they had a job, took off on their own,” she says. “I think that’s the miracle of Tunica.” At a recent public hearing on the budget, she was the only person to speak. She asked if a hospital was on the list of expenditures. No, she was told, it was not. But two clinics are available, and a doctor is supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day. Sister Griffin simply nodded. She has been working in Tunica for 10 years. Government, she says in an interview after the hearing, has become more open and responsive to local needs but still has a long way to go in housing, education, job training, and public transportation. “We have people come into our office every day looking for housing,” she says. The Tunica County Housing Project, funded by Catholic charities and various grants, has built 30 new single-family homes east of U.S. Highway 61, with 11 more in the works. The housing organization had to put in all the water, sewer, and roads itself. Less than a mile away, $38 million of federal and local government funds will be used to build the new airport, shaving 15 to 30 minutes off the current distance from Memphis International to the casinos. The other big concern for Tunica has been attracting new citizens, especially the mid-level and upper-level casino workers who live in DeSoto County and Memphis. “A lot of employees came here from bigger communities and are used to having more in the way of amenities in the place where they live,” says David Rogers, vice president of human resources for Hollywood Casino, who commutes 45 minutes to work. “That and the number of rooftops in Tunica County limits the population.” So Tunica is taking steps, sometimes with considerable controversy, to change its image to appeal to them. A $10 million municipal golf course is planned. A consulting firm suggested it could be a magnet for new upscale homes. The $25 million arena, which opened in August with a farm expo, will also compete with a new arena in DeSoto County for general entertainment like rodeos and tractor pulls. The most controversial addition is the new public elementary school in the northern part of the county near the casinos. Backers hope it will be a catalyst for new housing and attract both black and white students. Plans for the school were approved last year after the U.S. Department of Justice, a federal judge, the Mississippi attorney general, and a citizens group hammered out a consent decree. Nearly a year later, steel has been erected, but the school is not expected to open until 2001. Capacity will be 500, but only 250 students are projected to enroll initially. [This story originally appeared in the October issue of Memphis magazine.] (You can write John Branston at branston@memphismagazine.com)

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