Casinos just might be worth a shot

Published 8:43 pm Monday, August 31, 2009

SELMA — Not long ago, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks stood outside the St. James Hotel here and talked about the revenue benefits of casino gambling.

He used many figures that won’t be repeated here as he made his point.

Sparks, who is running for governor, believes casino gambling might give the Black Belt and the rest of Alabama a boost.

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He used Mississippi as an example.

When the Europa Star sailed into port on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the 1980s, a whole lot changed for the state’s coastline and the rest of the state. And, in many ways, Alabama changed a little, too.

Charles Liberis, a Florida lawyer and developer, brought the Star to Biloxi. He had a couple of partners, David Brannen, a hotel and condominium developer, and Todd Schweizer, president of Beach Community Bank.

For several years, the partners’ ship sailed in and out of port at Biloxi. The partners had successfully claimed that the waters off the Mississippi Gulf Coast were international waters. The Europa Star backed out of port each day, steamed about three miles off the coast and turned circles all afternoon while her passengers rolled dice and counted cards.

Before the 1990s, the Mississippi Legislature approved dockside gambling, and the casinos took off. The coast had a head start because the Star already drew crowds from as far away as Tennessee and Georgia, not to mention Louisiana and Alabama.

Then Tunica jumped in on the act. This poor Mississippi Delta town’s cotton fields grew nine casinos in what seemed an overnight venture.

Tunica is similar to Selma and the Black Belt area. Before gambling came to town, Tunica was known for its “Sugar Ditch,” the poorest area in the United States. Tunica County had a reputation. Every time a national news organization wanted to show the face of poverty, its reporters and photographers loaded their gear and went to Sugar Ditch.

In the early 1990s, about the only place to stay in Tunica consisted of about 12 rooms. It cost $40 a night and the television pulled in a station or two off an antenna hooked up to an office. The family that ran the hotel lived in the back of the office.

Then came the casinos — Hollywood, Harrah’s, Sam’s Town, Gold Strike, The Grand’s, Fitzgerald’s, to name a few. Limos ran the Highway 61 of Bob Dylan fame up to Memphis to fetch junket gamblers, who flew in on their private chartered jets.

Folks down in Tunica near the town learned to deal black jack or serve drinks or wait tables or clean up hotel rooms. The jobs weren’t always great, but the paycheck was welcome.

The government cheered, especially local government. But those were the early days.

The equivalent to the county commission (board of supervisors) hired the son of a former Delta congressman when his boss, Dan Quayle, was no longer vice president.

Webster Franklin knows how to market a place. He knows how to put the squeeze on enough folks in a gentle kind of way to get what he needs for success.

Franklin is the Tunica Visitors and Convention Bureau. He lives and breathes his work.

And he’s made Tunica a destination.

Limos may run up U.S. 61 to Memphis, but not so often to pull junket people off their planes. Gambling money built an airport able to handle 737s and all the charters that could fly into the Delta town. There’s an outlet mall, an aquatic center and plenty of restaurants around.

And that 12-room hotel? Well, it’s a part of history.

County officials estimate that since 1990, when casinos came to the poorest county in the nation, Tunica County has seen $603 million come through its bank accounts from legalized gambling. Last year alone, the county received $43 million in gambling revenue, a portion of the 4 percent tax paid in by the casinos.

Casino gambling isn’t a panacea. There are issues. Even the Mississippi watchdog state department, the legislative Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure, recommended the Mississippi Gaming Commission adopt a formal inspection program to conduct unannounced inspections of casino operations. PEER also recommends better training of commission officers to ensure the games are run fairly.

Arguments about casinos as dens of iniquity will always follow the move to legalize casino gambling. People will gamble when they really can’t afford to shell out the money. That’s a fact of life just like some people drink too much, drive too fast, eat too much and engage in a host of activities to the extreme. There’s something called self-discipline that’s missing. No amount of hair pulling and gnashing of teeth will force someone to take responsibility.

Sparks isn’t far off. In all likelihood, casino operations under a strong gaming commission could improve tourism in this region. Likely, we would not see the influx of a Tunica or a Mississippi Gulf Coast just because we’re late getting into the game. At one time the places to gamble were Tunica, the Gulf Coast, Las Vegas and New Jersey. Not so now. Still, its worth a shot.