Tunica Harrah's Tunica Caesars

Harrah’s Tunica: the biggest casino in Mississippi is set to close June 2 (Image: Mississippi.com)

Harrah’s Tunica – the largest casino resort between Las Vegas and Atlantic City – is to close in early summer, Caesars Entertainment announced this week; the action will leave 1,300 of their casino employees jobless. Caesars has attempted to sell the underperforming casino for the last three years; however, the sheer size of the property has made this difficult, the company admitted. The 2,000-acre resort consists of three hotels with a total of 1,356 rooms, a golf course and a 2,500-seat event center.

“It’s a large property to maintain and it requires mass crowds to come in, and through this economic downturn we just haven’t seen those types of crowds here,” explained Caesars’ Mid-South spokesperson R. Scott Barber.

The casino will remain fully operational until June 2nd, although the recent $62 million sale of the Tunica Fitz Casino offers a glimmer of hope that a buyer may yet be found.

President of Central Markets and Partnership Development John Payne said that the decision was “difficult but necessary,” and explained that the company had explored “every other viable alternative.” He expressed sympathy for the workforce and said that Caesars would endeavor to find alternative jobs for them wherever possible.

Caesars owns two other properties in Tunica: the Roadhouse and the Horseshoe.

Mississippi Earning

The casino was an ambitious project when it was built in the art deco style during the mid-1990s, during a time of economic and commercial optimism, when the Tunica casino project was in full swing and apparently thriving. It began life as the Grand Casino Tunica, built by Grand Casinos Inc., the company of the late casino pioneer and poker player, Lyle Berman, who subsequently sold it to Harrahs, which later became Caesars Entertainment. The property changed its name following a $45 million renovation in 2007.

The news of its closure has come as a complete shock to the casino’s employees and regular customers alike, and it’s grave news for the Tunica area. The county was once known as the poorest in the poorest state of the Union. Up until the mid-1980s, part of the town of Tunica was known as “Sugar Ditch Alley,” because impoverished locals would dump raw sewage into the ditch that run past their shacks.

Since 1990, the construction of casinos in the area has prompted regeneration; by 1994, the casinos had created 35,000 jobs, the population swelled, and $1 billion in revenue was being generated per year. However, unlike the Casinos on the Gulf Coast with their golden beaches, beyond their resorts Tunica has little to draw holidaymakers other than rolling cotton fields. Therefore, instead of attracting the desired tourist dollar from other US states and beyond, Tunica’s main clientele has remained Mississippi daytrippers, mainly from Memphis.

Before the Flood

Tunica has become the third-largest gaming area in the US, after Las Vegas and Atlantic City; but even those cities have struggled in the economic downturn, and a recent study showed that 25.5 percent of the population was below the poverty line. Today, Tunica has the second-highest unemployment rate in all of Mississippi.

In May 2011, a major flood crippled gambling operations in the area. The Mississippi River rose over eight feet high, blocking the doors to many of the casinos. The industry reported that revenue was cut in half that year, while huge expenses were shelled out on repairs.

“It’s not a Tunica issue, it’s a Mid-South issue,” said Webster Franklin of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The economy of the entire Mid-South relies heavily on the expenditures by employees of people who work here, go home, and spend that money.”