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A Mississippi County Grows Casinos Instead of Cotton

By Laurel Shaper WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1994



TUNICA COUNTY, MISS.

IN a 1990s version of Las Vegas springing up in the Nevada desert, casinos are cropping up in cotton fields here in rural Tunica County, Miss., about 25 miles south of Memphis.

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This was the poorest county in the nation, according to the 1980 United States Census. After a tour of the desolate farmland dotted with dilapidated shacks, Jesse Jackson dubbed the region ``America's Ethiopia.''

In 1980, unemployment was 15 percent, and the median family income was $7,685 a year. Today, the median family income has nearly tripled, and unemployment is down to 4 percent. During the past two years, 10 casinos have opened in the county, and at least one more is scheduled to open before 1995.

Secondary construction - restaurants, hotels, and gas stations -

is just getting under way. On Mississippi Highway 61 near the county line, there's a break in the cotton fields where a Holiday Inn is being built.

``This is the greatest thing in the world for the area,'' says developer Don Strahl. ``Two years ago, there was nothing but cotton here.''

Romele Gatewood swings a hammer at the edge of what will soon be the hotel parking lot, then reaches over to pick a flower from the cotton plants buffering the construction site. ``I was born and raised in the cotton fields,'' he says. ``I never dreamed that they would have hotels down here.''

Three separate clusters of casinos have been built here during the past two years, gradually moving closer to Memphis. Every day, thousands of people travel two-lane Highway 61 to and from Memphis to try the gaming tables and slot machines.

With casinos overtaking cotton as the region's new cash crop, this rural economy is definitely on an upswing. But environmentalists are outraged that much of the construction is affecting environmentally sensitive wetlands surrounding the river. The fertile bottomlands that were once left to the wild turkey, deer, and cotton farmers are now covered with asphalt.

The 1990 gaming law passed by the Mississippi Legislature stipulates that casinos must be floating on the Mississippi River or the Mississippi Sound on the Gulf Coast. This led to a scramble for property that has dramatically inflated land prices in Tunica County. Riverfront land originally worth $500 an acre has been sold for $10,000 an acre.

Although the law was originally intended to contain casino development along the waterfront, critics say it would have been better to allow casinos to open anywhere in the state. Making casinos water-dependent is unnecessary and harmful to the environment, says Peter Schutt, founder of the Mississippi River Coalition, a group opposed to casino development in Tunica County.

Mr. Schutt's opposition is based solely on environmental concerins. ``Mississippi is saying that casinos cannot exist without water,'' he says. ``But these wetlands are the most environmentally sensitive areas in the state.''

The gaming law says all casinos must be on ``navigable waterways.'' Yet casino operators seeking a more stable location than the fluctuating river began digging ditches next to the river, flooding wetlands, and floating in barges on which to build casinos. Then the opening is diked up again.