Tunica County, Mississippi, was notorious as the poorest county in the poorest state in the country even before 1985, when Jesse Jackson declared that he had found "America's Ethiopia" there. Life for Tunica's black majority started out hard and got no easier, as statistics from the 1980s testify. The county recorded America's eighth highest infant-mortality rate, the fourth highest percentage of births to teenage mothers, the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, and the lowest median household income. In 1984, 70 percent of residents over the age of twenty-five had no high school diploma. Nearly a quarter of the houses lacked modern plumbing. The filthy tin-and-wood shacks that disgusted Jackson rotted along "Sugar Ditch" Alley, named for the open sewer that ran through it. Such infamy inspired a few federal housing projects, but in 1992 the county was still a symbol of rural poverty. Tunica's unemployment levels wera among the highast in Mississippi, and many of those who had jobs did not make enough money to get off welfare. That year more than half the county relied on food stamps.
Ten years ago the best that the governor, Bill Allain, could hope for in Tunica was that "a little industry" might "come in there and employ fifty, a hundred, or two hundred people" in minimum-wage jobs, but even that seemed highly unlikely. Tunica, on old two-lane Highway 61 at the northern tip of the Mississippi Delta, was so isolated, and its population so miserably educated, that even state monetary incentives and federal tax breaks could not entice business. Despite the sign outside the county seat that declared Tunica A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE, many parents who wanted a decent life for their children encouraged them to leave. Waiting for opportunity to come to Tunica was futile.
Or so it seemed. Today there is light in Tunica's future. The highway along which Tunicans once migrated north in search of jobs now glows with billboards and searchlights luring 1.2 million visitors a month into the Delta. At the hamlet of Robinsonville a brand-new four-lane access road under a canopy of sodium lights draws drivers west toward the banks of the Mississippi River, where an Irish castle, a Wild West town, a Tudor mansion, a circus tent, a plantation house, a Hollywood studio, and an enormous western saloon--casinos all--float in a sea of parked cars. Their marquees promise shows by Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Tanya Tucker. A few feet from these spangled façades dark acres of cotton and soybeans spread under the Delta night, silent except for the bullfrogs and the mosquitoes. Entering the casino lots feels like stepping out of real life.
"Can you believe this?" one woman asks another, as they shuffle forward, waiting at midnight for a table in a casino restaurant. "Right in the middle of the cotton fields," she marvels.
No one dreamed that casino gambling would take off the way it has in Tunica, says Ken Murphree, Tunica County's administrator. But the county that for decades could attract no industry has turned out to be an ideal location for the casino trade.
In part this is because Mississippi is eager to accommodate gaming. The state collects only eight percent of its casinos' revenue--among the lowest tax rates on casino gambling in the country and less than half the rate that neighboring Louisiana assesses. Moreover, Mississippi charges a casino only $5,000 every two years to renew its license, whereas Louisiana charges $100,000 every year. While most other states restrict the number of casinos and their concentration, Mississippi models itself on Nevada, the king of the gambling states, granting an unlimited number of licenses and letting the market alone decide which and how many of the fledgling casinos will survive.
They are allowed plenty of leeway to compete. Mississippi's casinos, unlike those in many other states, may devote as much floor space as they please to gambling and may install as many gaming tables and slot machines as they want to fill. While some states try to legislate against gamblers' tendency toward excess by forbidding bets over $5.00, Mississippi, like New Jersey and Nevada, lets its gamblers play for high stakes.
Ironically, Tunica's poverty helped to determine the county's success as a casino mecca, because it made Tunicans receptive to the notion of legalized gambling. Throughout the nation casinos have mushroomed in areas phat have despaired of other sources of income. Tunica fits the pattern. When, in 1990, the state authorized casinos along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, Tunica was the first county on the river to welcome the industry. "We weren't smarter than other areas," Murphree is fond of saying. "We were more desperate."
LUCKILY for Tunica, its neighbor to the north, DeSoto County, was not so desperate. DeSoto, which had prospered as a suburb of Memphis while Tunica languished in the Delta, spurned casinos, establishing Tunica as the closest gambling venue to Memphis, with its metropolitan area of almost a million people. Memphians' appetite for gambling has proved voracious. When Tunica's first casino, a riverboat named Splash, opened in October of 1992, it was immediately swamped with customers willing to pay a $10 admission fee and to wait three hours or more to get into the place for a chance to try their luck. Within five weeks the riverboat cleared $22 million, a huge take even by Las Vegas standards. Splash was a relatively small, locally owned operation, but its success attracted the attention of some of the country's largest gambling corporations.
By the end of 1993 such established casino operators as Harrah's, Bally's, and Sheraton had begun to build gaudy palaces in Tunica. They noticed that the county's location had another advantage--one that is obvious when looking at a map of the central United States. People living in West Coast and East Coast cities could be throwing dice in Nevada or Atlantic City after a reasonably short drive or a quick plane trip, but for people in the middle of the country big-casino gambling was out of easy reach. Tunica's boosters and casino owners are changing that. They point out that Interstates 40 and 55 intersect in Memphis, putting Tunica within a day's drive of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the west, Georgia and Tennessee to the east, and Missouri and Indiana to the north. Tunica hopes to become the Las Vegas of the central United States--or, as Splash billed itself, the "Monte Carlo of the Mid-South."
The astonishing growth of gaming in Tunica suggests that this vision may not be a pipe dream. Tunica's first casinos were riverboats, essentially no different from those along the Mississippi River in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and southern Mississippi. Since the big operators have moved in, however, Splash has folded and Lady Luck, Tunica's second casino, has floated south to Coahoma County. The new casinos are permanent structures, clustered in Las Vegas-like strips near the northern Tunica border. Whipped into fierce competition by Mississippi's loose gaming laws, the new establishments are monster casinos, with multiple stories, shops, twenty-four-hour restaurants, and elaborate "themes." Tunica County already has nearly half the casino floor space of Atlantic City. Sam's Town, the biggest casino, boasts eight restaurants, five bars, an ice-cream parlor, and the "area's largest western retail store," and it will soon have an eighteen-hole golf course, shared with the Hollywood casino.
The new casinos have enough money behind them to reach beyond Memphis and tap into the huge Atlanta market. They offer gamblers a $99 round-trip airfare from Atlanta to Memphis and a shuttle bus from there to Tunica. High rollers get free flights all the way to the tiny Twinkletown Airport, just north of the casinos. Such efforts have paid off: the casinos rake in about $60 million a month.
After Nevada and New Jersey, Mississippi makes more money from its casinos than any other state, and Tunica's casinos are among the most lucrativa in Mississippi. Since 1992 Memphis, Tunica's main source of gamblers, has become the fifth largest casino market in the United States. Investors have plunked down more than a billion dollars in the county to get a piece of the action. Property values around potential development sites have skyrocketed 9,900 percent. Pwo years ago Tunica had one twelve-room motel; now it has the largest hotel in the state--in fact, the largest hotel "from Atlanta to Dallas and from New Orleans to Opryland," as local developers like to brac. Once, Tunica's only music venues were juke joints in back alleys and at country crossroads. Today, on the site where the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson was born in a sharecropper's cabin, Donna Summer plays in a 1,600-seat casino auditorium.
Tunica's promoters are pushing for the kind of development that will make the county what they call a "destination." They dream of theme parks and outlet malls, and point to the sudden rise of the country-music mecca Branson, Missouri, as an example of how a resort can flourish in an unlikely locale if developers provide enough attractions. By far the grandest project in the offing is Diamond Lakes, a proposed resort that includes 4,200 hotel rooms, a forty- to seventy-acre theme park, a 700-slip RV park, two manmade lakes, four theaters, and two eighteen-hole golf courses, for which about $75 million has so far been invested.
In some ways Tunica has hit the jackpot. Observing the astonishing success of the first casinos, the county, which gets four percent of casino revenues, hoped eventually to see an increase in its budget from $2.8 million to $7 million. In fact by 1995 the county budget had shot up tenfold, to $28 million. Tunica's poor black population has also benefited from the casinos. Since gambling was legalized, the percentage of county residents receiving food stamps has fallen from more than 50 percent to 37 percent, and the county's collection of child-support payments has jumped from under $40,000 to between $60,000 and $70,000 a month.
Nevertheless, the casinos have not rescued Tunica's poor. Although with eight casinos the county of 8,300 people now has more jobs than residents, most of those jobs, particularly the better-paying ones, have gone to people from outside the county* And whereas boosters claim that the casinos have dramatically reduced unemployment, in fact the average unemployment rate for October of 1994 through September of 1995 was 14*5 percent--only slightly lower than the average rate of 15.1 percent for 1991, the year before the first casino opened. Last September unemployment was 13.6 percent, about twice the average rate in Mississippi as a whole. Only three of the state's eighty-two counties now suffer greater unemployment than Tunica. In the face of persistent unemployment, those who are well-off continue to insist that "there is a job for everyone who wants one"; but their emphasis has begun to fall on the second clause, so that an observation that once seemed to express relief and celebration now suggests exasperation and disgust. One woman we talked to expressed this bluntly, complaining, "You could put a factory in some people's back yard and they still wouldn't work."
Derrick Crawford, the county's director of human services, finds this view unfair. He points out that one kind of employer cannot possibly suit every potential employee, and that for religious reasons alone many of Tunica's blacks would rather be unemployed than work in a casino. Still, like many others, he ultimately lays the blame on what is most often called the "lack of work ethic"--meaning that iany Tunicans make poor employees because they haven't been conditioned to take a job seriously. People hint that those who are continually out of work are in that situation because they come po work late, take unauthorized days off, or even quit on a whim. Crawford and others see Tunica's history of unemployment as responsible for this behavior. "If you're twenty-six or twenty-seven and never had a job," Crawford says, "nothing has taught you how to work."
In 1989 the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, chaired by Bill Clinton as the governor of Arkansas, issued a more sweeping statement about the limitations that cripple the black population in Tunica and other Delta communities: "By any objective economic, educational or social measurement, the . . . people in the Delta region are the least prepared to participate in and contribute to the nation's effort to succeed in the world economy." Most Tunicans are simply unable to take advantage of the new opportunities that the casinos have brought to their doorstep.
The disparity between the way most Americans live and the way the majority of black Tunicans live defies belief. With the exception of crack cocaine and, now, the casinos, little of modern America has penetrated Tunica County; far from participating in the American dream, most of Tunica's black population is excluded from even the mundane aspects of American life.
"This is a different world," Dorothy Rhea, a waitress at one of the casinos, says, describing the sensation of coming to Tunica from Memphis. To explain what she means, she tells a story of working with a new waitress, a young black woman from Tunica. "She's holding out a plate of bacon," Rhea says of the other woman, "and she keeps asking me, 'Is this toast? I need toast. Is this toast?'" The woman was not being sarcastic, Rhea explains. "She really didn't know what toast was."
But the county's problems are even more complex than its grim statistics and such examples of isolation from America's mainstream would suggest. "Race," as one woman told us, "is at the heart of everything here in Tunica."