Tunica, the south’s casino capital, rolls the dice to get gamblers and their dollars to return

TUNICA, Miss. — In Tunica County, the bright flashing lights of casinos that once attracted millions of rapturous betters are finding it tougher these days to lure gamblers in and hit the jackpot with their dollars.

Arthur Wrenn and his wife, Sandra,  have both lived and worked in Tunica and they've seen a big difference when they visit the casinos.

"It seems to be fewer people and the odds of winning seem to be lower," Arthur Wrenn said.

"I work at the steakhouse over at Sam's Town and it's a little more quiet than it used to be, but you know there are a lot of casinos now," Sandra Wrenn said.

These are some of the images of Tunica today: Casino parking lots are far from full, the old Harrah's Casino resort is barricaded, the former Bally's Hotel recently became a pile of rubble, and a nearby outlet mall almost begs for customers.

Webster Franklin is the president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"When we opened you could gamble in Nevada and Atlantic City and those were the only two places. So people from Mid-America flocked here. Today every American is in a two and a half hour drive to a casino," Franklin said.

The Tunica casinos were once the only game in town and the region.

Back in early 1990's, Mississippi Delta fields went from growing cotton to giving life to a casino industry that became known as the 'Tunica Miracle' creating 14,000 jobs.

"Today there are 7,800 people employed in the industry. It's important to know most of those don't live here in Tunica. They live in the metro area like Desoto County or Shelby County, Franklin said.

The first casino called 'Splash' opened on a riverboat docked at a remote river landing in 1992 and made a splash. More casinos were built with gambling revenue reaching almost 1.2 billion dollars, but those were the good old days. Now it's about half that.

James Dunn is a Tunica County Supervisor.

"Things have not been as well as we'd like for them to be as far as the number of tourist dollars coming to the county. The tax dollars," Dunn said

After so much success, you might ask why the Tunica Miracle didn't last? Some say it was the perfect storm involving competition, the economy and the Mighty Mississippi River.

Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, Arkansas, once known for being just a dog track, has become a gambling mecca attracting gamblers and their dollars from right across the river in Memphis.

Tuesday morning WREG heard from Webster Franklin from the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau about our story. He says it is a common mistake that is made by the media and one I've tried to correct when it comes up.  The dollar figures to compare the Tunica market to the Southland market are like comparing apples to oranges. In an email he told us making the comparison of Tunica to Southland was not representative or completely fair to the their casino market.

"You use gross gaming revenue $634 million (net gaming win) for Tunica and handle volume or amount wagered $2.7 billion for Southland.  We estimate that the net gaming win at Southland would be around $225 million to our comparable $634 million.  This still means that the Tunica market is 3x the size of Southland without the significant non-gaming/hospitality revenue streams that are not included in gross gaming numbers. I mention this only to make the point that when using these figures it really stands out and has an impression on how the consumer looks at the market and unfortunately, Tunica. There is no doubt that the Tunica market has declined as evidence by your story but the Southland to Tunica numbers are not a fair representation," Webster Franklin said.

Tunica also faced another challenge. In May 2011 the flood of the century hit striking a devastating blow to the Tunica casinos.

"When the 2011 flood hit, it changed the dynamics of this market when all the properties closed," Franklin said

Justin Carter is general manager of Hollywood Casino, First Jackpot Casino and Resorts Casino in Tunica County.

"Since then we've been trying to reclaim that and bring people back. A lot of people have not come back and a lot of people haven't been as frequent as they did then because that's a very long time for a business and for businesses this large to really shutdown, Carter said

Even though casinos are not legal in Tennessee, Memphians both gamble and work in Tunica.

Mayor Jim Strickland says he'd like to see Tunica casinos survive.

"Because it all helps us economically. I absolutely don't think we are reliant on them or we have to have them, but I do think it helps because the more tourists who come to tunica or west Memphis for gambling, they probably spend a few nights in Memphis," Strickland said.

Tunica County leaders say they're working together to create a strategy to save the casino industry. They're sending out an SOS to state lawmakers to consider allowing 'land based' casinos in Tunica similar to what was done for the gulf coast casinos after Hurricane Katrina.

The state legalized casinos in 1990, but only on the Mississippi River and gulf coast.

"We feel like a lot more entities and amenities would come around the casinos and that would draw a larger population to this community because we always risk another flood and that would be dire for Tunica," Dunn said.

"If we could let the existing properties reinvest on land here in Tunica county and make this a more modern-day casino strip. I think we'd be more competitive in the long-term," Franklin said.

WREG has also learned a Florida company called TJM Properties is deciding what to do with the old two-thousand acre Harrah's Resort property it purchased. There's been speculation the parcel could be sold and redeveloped into a new resort complex and water park.

"We've got a great infrastructure there with the golf course and two hotels and convention center and it could be good for someone to come in and do that," Franklin said.

Another possible sign of survival is this year Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Casino, acquired two more casinos: First Jackpot and Resorts, for $44 million.

They believe the Tunica market has better casinos, entertainment, and restaurants to win back gamblers and not throw in the towel.

"Even though it's been a rope a dope, we are ready to come back very strong and I think in 2018 you'll see some things you haven't seen in tunica and you'll be very impressed," Carter said.

Tunica, the south's casino capital, is hoping betters will take another gamble as it tries to survive for the next 25 years.