When Vincent Creel called me last month to remind me about the 30th anniversary of gaming in Mississippi and volunteered to write about its impact on his town, Biloxi, I gladly accepted.
Vincent had been a reporter for the Biloxi newspaper, The Sun Herald, and had followed the legalization process very closely. He later became the public affairs officer for the city of Biloxi, so he had a front-row seat for all those 30 years. You’ll find his story compelling and interesting, even if you weren’t there.
But I was there, and I found my memories of Mississippi flooding back while reading it. At that time, I’d only been covering gaming for less than 10 years, and my company was the co-founder of the Southern Gaming Summit, which we held for the first two years in New Orleans in the early ’90s. Then, Beverly Martin, at that time the executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association (now the state Gaming Association), came to me and suggested we bring the show to Biloxi, and the rest is history.
SGS was a smashing success, and continues to serve the industry in Mississippi. To be part of that exciting process of introducing a truly game-changing industry into a state that needed a “miracle” was an honor.
And to see the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was heartbreaking. But the gaming industry created a second miracle on the Gulf Coast by recovering and bringing back jobs and tourism to once again rescue the region.
While Vincent rightly focused on Biloxi, the real “miracle” was occurring up north in Tunica County, the area closest to the big city of Memphis. This was what Jesse Jackson called “America’s Third World” at the time, and he wasn’t far wrong. The Mississippi Delta country was beautiful, but life was hardscrabble and its people were dirt poor.
On my first trip to Tunica in 1992, I visited the Splash casino in Mhoon Landing. It was nothing more than two barges lashed together floating on the shores of the Mississippi River. The ceilings weren’t more than 7 feet high, and slot machines were crammed into every square inch. The wait to get on board was often as much as three hours, the atmosphere inside was claustrophobic, and then they charged you a $10 admission fee. (I had some explaining to do to our CFO when I turned in my expense report.)
The casino was mostly owned by two brothers, Rick and Ron Schilling. I met them and a few other casino partners at the local John Deere dealership intent on finding out how they put this enterprise together and what their plans were for the future.
Well, I barely got my first question out before they started peppering me with their own questions. What should we do next? Should we open a restaurant on the property? How about a hotel? Maybe a theme park? By the time I got out of there my head was spinning and my story had completely changed. Instead of “what a great opportunity this is,” it became, “How can they sustain this success?”
And it turned out that there was good reason for skepticism. Although within a year, three more casinos had opened at Mhoon Landing—Lady Luck, President and Bally’s—a reinterpretation of the “dockside” regulation opened up a can of worms. It was determined that casinos could be floating on a “tributary” of the river, even if it was just a trickle. Companies built large cofferdams connected to the river only by a stream to float their barges, opening up property north of Robinsonville, much closer to Memphis—the casino equivalent of the real estate adage, location, location, location. Mhoon Landing dried up.
The Tunica resorts area at one time offered as many as 11 casinos, but today, only six remain. Unlike the Gulf Coast casinos, which were able to successfully compete against casinos in Alabama and Louisiana, competition from Arkansas and destinations further north made the Tunica casinos less attractive.
The gaming miracle has worked almost everywhere it has been introduced in one fashion or another. The best example is the tribal casino business, which lifted many Native American tribes out of poverty and into positions of wealth and power. People may disagree, but casinos in Atlantic City saved that resort town. Other cities and jurisdictions didn’t have such lofty goals, but in most cases, casinos met or surpassed those goals. So while casinos are not miracle workers, they can transform a community for the good.