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.
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.
``To contend with the fluctuations of the river would just be impossible,'' says James Gravenmier of Splash Casino, which was the first to open in Tunica County in 1992 and, unlike many of the casinos, sits in view of the river.
``Anybody that knows anything about the Mississippi River thinks it's a bad idea to stick a barge out in the middle of the river with all the river traffic and runaway barges,'' says Chuck Patton, deputy director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
So the casinos often end up far from the river sitting on barges barely floating in several feet of water. ``You've got a barge that's hundreds of tons in weight sitting in the middle of a cotton field,'' says Mike Coop, a supporter of the Mississippi River Coalition.
THE coalition drafted a complaint against the Army Corps of Engineers for failing to enforce the federal Clean Water Act, which requires strict environmental assessments for wetlands construction.
``The Corps was supposed to require these developers to submit plans that would be less damaging, and they never did until we came along,'' Schutt says. ``By the time we had made enough noise, they had already granted a majority of the permits.''
The coalition has tried to negotiate a mitigation agreement between the casino operators, the Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. A group of 11 casino operators agreed to purchase 2,200 acres south of Tunica County for $1.2 million and turn it into a wildlife preserve, compensating for the environmental damage caused by the casinos. In return, casino operators hope to gain a speedier permit process for future construction in Tunica County.
The Corps of Engineers and the casino operators have approved the plan. But the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA are holding back. ``I'm supportive of the fundamental concept,'' says John Hankinson, regional administrator for the EPA in Atlanta. But, he says, the proposed site includes some active farm land that makes it less useful as a wildlife habitat.
Schutt would like to see the agreement go forward. ``This agreement would satisfy us and take us out of the picture in terms of threatening to sue or opposing any further project,'' he says. ``The damage is done. The asphalt is down, the buildings are up, and the trees are gone.''
Schutt expects construction to drop off soon in any case. ``The market is not going to support much more development,'' he says. ``The casino industry's own marketing research showed that Tunica County could support six to eight casinos, and there are already more than that open.''
When Splash was the only casino in the county in 1992, people were happy to drive nearly an hour from Memphis. They waited in line for hours and paid a $10 cover charge just to get in the door. But what started with a splash has turned into a wave of competing casinos. And competition has changed things dramatically.
Admission to all the casinos is free now. Several casinos have laid off workers, and the original casinos farther from Memphis are suffering as bigger and flashier operations open up closer to the metropolitan area. At least three companies have put casino development plans on hold, abandoning barges high and dry in the Mississippi cotton fields.