April, 2013. Rags to Riches – Tunica, Mississippi

Posted on April 22, 2013

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mapThe history of the Town of Tunica, Mississippi, is literally a rags-to-riches story.

Once a poverty-stricken little burg nestled next to the Mississippi River, it existed in obscurity for much of its life. Then, after a disturbing little revelation in 1985, the residents of both the town and county in which it is located – also named Tunica – rolled the dice hoping to improve their lot, and they won.

They not only won, they hit the jackpot and skyrocketed from being one of the poorest places in the United States to one of the wealthiest counties in Mississippi.

Tunica takes its name from the area’s original inhabitants, the Tunica Indians. Historically, it was a farming area and never developed a large industrial base or a major port facility like its neighbors along the Mississippi.

Due to its rich delta farmland, Tunica County gradually grew in population up until World War II. However, after tractors and mechanical cotton pickers came into general use, jobs began vanishing, and those who could head north to look for work did so.Tunica farm

During the Civil Rights movement, national attention was focused on nearby Memphis.  Tunica was flying well under the radar until an article appeared in The New Yorker in 1985.

sugar ditch 2A writer for the magazine visited Mississippi, and happened upon Sugar Ditch Alley, a slum behind the town’s main street stretching for more than two blocks. All the inhabitants of the Alley were black, and their living conditions were deplorable.  Bad enough in itself, the writer also found an open sewer running the length of the Alley, directly behind the shacks.

With the eyes of the nation now focused on the problems of Tunica, community leaders began to cast around for possible ways to hoist themselves – literally – out of the gutter.

When the State of Mississippi legalized gaming in 1990, town and county leaders decided to follow their river neighbors and try their luck on gaming.

They felt Tunica had something to offer the big casino operators that other communities didn’t – relatively cheap, undeveloped riverside land. County residents went to the polls in 1991 and overwhelmingly agreed to take the chance. An aggressive marketing campaign was begun…and the following timeline illustrates just how successful they were in attracting the big money that very quickly turned this area completely around.

1992 – The first casinos built in Tunica at Mhoon Landing, north of town.

1995 – Tunica County becomes debt free by setting aside 4 million dollars in escrow.

1997 – The Town of Tunica reduces property taxes by 25%.

2000 – The Town of Tunica reduces property taxes to zero and adopts a flat-fee water billing system.

2002 – Oliver North is the speaker at the dedication of the Town of Tunica’s Veterans Memorial, and the State of Mississippi reports Tunica County in a four-way tie for lowest unemployment in the state.

And, perhaps because of this relatively sudden change in fortune, Tunica today has a bit of an identity problem.

Since 1992, the town’s name has been popularly associated with multiple casinos along the Mississippi. However, today’s group of casinos are officially located in the community of Tunica Resorts, some ten miles north of the town of Tunica. And to confuse things further, Tunica Resorts was originally named “Robinsonville”, but the name was changed in 2005 to eliminate (?) confusion over the location of the casinos.

slot machinesThen there’s the fact that the original set of casinos here – those built in 1992 – were located just northwest of the Town of Tunica, in an area known as Mhoon Landing, which turned out to be a bit too close to the Mighty Mississippi. Much of this area is now designated as North Tunica.

These early casinos were moved, swept away or closed as newer ones opened up in the current location (whatever that is), which is closer to Memphis and further away from the main part of the river.

Anyway.

The Tunica area – town and county – is now the third-largest gaming region in the United States, after Las Vegas and Atlantic City.photo (3)

As money poured into the area, a lot of good things happened for everyone – local residents, the state as a whole, and anyone who stops here for a visit.

Along the way, gaming tax from its now-nine casinos has funded, all or in part, medical clinics, health and wellness centers,  museums, golf courses, tennis and sporting clay venues, visitor centers, outlet shops, hotels, an airport, RV parks, an arena and exposition center,  and numerous hotels, and probably much more.

FitzgeraldsTunica took a chance and won.

No wonder people flock to casinos here and elsewhere – after all, that big win is just a roll of the dice away.

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