Casino struggles shift Tunica’s fortunes
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Tess Vigeland: Twenty years ago, Tunica, Miss., was the poorest county in the nation. What few job opportunities there were existed mostly on cotton plantations. That all changed in the early 90s when the casino business came to town. Now Tunica is one of the most popular gambling destinations in the country. Just behind Vegas and Atlantic City.
And the standard of living for its mostly poor and African American residents has improved dramatically. But the recession is hitting the casino business hard and threatening those advances. Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler looks at shifting fortunes in the Mississippi Delta.
JEFF TYLER: Two months ago, Dametra Adams opened a nail salon. Adams had spent 10 years working as a casino cocktail waitress.
Tyler: Were you able to save any money?
DAMETRA Adams: Oh, of course. This is how I bought my business. And bought everything here. I didn’t have to get a loan or anything.
She’s a success story; someone who used her casino job as a springboard to launch her own business. But it may not be so easy for those coming up behind her. Thanks to the recession, fewer people are coming to the casinos. Lyn Arnold — president of the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce — says the casinos have been cutting their workforce.
LYN Arnold: Most of the positions that have been eliminated have been through attrition. Just recently have they had to turn to actual layoffs of employees.
She says the unemployment rate for the county is about 16 percent. That figure could drop as the agriculture industry, a big employer, begins hiring seasonal workers.
The Delta is the birthplace of the blues, the music captures the hardship of life along the Mississippi River. In Tunica County, generations of African-American sharecroppers picked cotton for next to nothing. Agriculture was about the only option for low-skilled workers.
Today, 10,000 people live in the county. Most are African-American. Their prospects have improved considerably since the casinos opened in 1992.
Set just inland from the Mississippi River, the casinos tower above the flat farmland. The state wanted them as a source of revenue. The gaming industry liked the location, about a half-hour south of Memphis and midway between Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
About 12,000 people work at the county’s nine casinos. Lyn Arnold with the Chamber of Commerce says the industry gave people the rare chance to get ahead.
Arnold: Casinos have paid very good wages. They have supplied benefits. And they train from within and promote from within. It allowed people not only to get in on an entry-level job, but to also have the ability to advance.
That opportunity draws workers from rural counties where there are virtually no jobs. Some travel more than a 100 miles to get to work. For several years, 38-year-old Jenny Glasper drove an hour each way to her job counting money at the casino.
JENNY Glasper: That was a great job opportunity, even though it was a little drive. It was worth it. Because it was more than minimum wage, and there was no job opportunity right next door.
After 15 years on the job, Glasper could afford to buy a four-bedroom house in the Memphis suburbs. But the casinos giveth, and the casinos taketh away.
Weeks after moving into her new house, Glasper became one of several hundred employees who were laid off.
Glasper: I have no idea how I’m going to continue to pay my mortgage here.
Forty-nine-year-old Jerry Robinson lost his job as a casino groundskeeper in October. Now he works part-time at a convenience store.
JERRY Robinson: I applied for jobs at the casinos, but they weren’t doin’ no hirin’. I applied for jobs on the farms, but they ain’t doin’ nothin’ right now.
In fact, the tractors are back in the fields. But modern machines do the work that used to be done by laborers. Making matters worse, many farmers have changed crops from cotton to corn, which also requires fewer workers. So people like Jerry often can’t go back to the old ways, even if they want to. And there’s another challenge to finding work.
The casinos are full-scale resorts with food and entertainment. Often, big tourist destinations create an opportunity for small businesses on the fringe. The casinos have had the opposite effect. The guests here never need to leave.
So few new businesses have been sprung up around the resorts.
Tunica County does benefit. Casinos contribute about $50 million a year in revenues. That helps support schools and county jobs. But some would like to see more economic diversity. Freddie Brandon works with Catholic Charities.
FREDDIE Brandon: You have quite a few, what you call minimum-wage jobs around. Such as McDonald’s and Waffle House, and things like that. But that’s mostly for teenagers, people that’s living with their parents. A family can’t live off minimum wage.
He says Tunica needs other industries. Warehousing and manufacturing companies are considering moving to the area. And the casinos will recover along with the economy. Tunica’s economic progress won’t be erased. But for now, people seeking good jobs may need to leave the county to find them.
In Tunica, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.
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