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Developments keep coming at, around Tunica casinos

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Guest donaltopablo

Developments keep coming at, around Tunica casinos

Michael Sheffield

Two proposed casinos are not the only new developments on the horizon in Tunica County.

The county has shifted its primary focus from opening more casinos to improving the county and city as a whole. The Tunica Riverpark opened this past spring with Mississippi River cruises becoming a hot amenity for casino visitors. A 5,500-foot airport expansion was recently completed with another 1,500 feet to be added before the end of the year, a move that will allow 737s to bring in loads of casino patrons.

White Oak Road, which runs to and from the airport, will be expanded to four lanes to ease access to the airport. Tunica National Golf and Tennis, featuring an 18-hole golf course and four indoor tennis courts, also recently opened. Grand Casino recently announced plans for a $65 million water park.

Gary Copeland, executive director of planning and development for Tunica County, says a developer plans to build 900 homes in Tunica, with construction on 300 to begin this fall. Copeland declines to name the developer, but is confident that the project is realistic.

"I try not to pay attention to the rumors that I hear, but I do listen to the real things that are going on," he says. "I hear people say all kinds of things, but if I don't see it, I don't put a lot of faith in it."

A project that is happening and will open in August is the $5.5 million Tunica Aquatic Center. With the success the county had with the Olympic Boxing Trials this past February, the county's appetite was whetted for more.

The center will feature an Olympic size swimming pool along with a 30-foot diving platform that is designed to lure the Olympic swimming and diving trials for 2008 and beyond. There are also plans for an indoor track facility, which could draw Olympic running trials.

Lyn Arnold, executive director of economic development for Tunica County, says the facility is also designed to improve the quality of life in Tunica.

With the residential developments, the city is primed to grow its residential population.

The casinos employ 14,000 people, but only 2,000-3,000 of those people live in the county. Copeland says the concerted effort is to improve housing to give career casino employees more reasons to live in Tunica.

"It would be a lot easier for someone to drive a couple of miles instead of from Shelby or DeSoto County to get to work, and the casino owners know that, so they support this project," Copeland says. "We're also attracting a lot of empty nesters who become interested in living here after visiting."

Arnold says the infrastructure is set, so the homes can happen.

"When gaming first came here, the goal was to improve the quality of life for the local people because a good life starts with a good job, and the casinos have offered that," she says. "The other amenities have been done to provide for the people who have lived here for a long time. Those opportunities weren't here before because it was a poor county for so long."

At least one more casino could be operational by the end of the year. Solid Gold Casino, owned and operated by local businessman Robert Carpenter and his wife, Patricia Shaw, expects its casino barge to arrive at its Mhoon Landing site next week.

The clock is ticking on Myriad Casino, owned by Canadian contractor Scott Hawrelechko, which has a two-year window to get its casino up and running.

Despite its efforts to add more quality-of-life amenities, Tunica is still a casino town.

"We'll never be a family destination because a gaming destination will never be a family destination," says Webster Franklin, CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But that doesn't preclude families from coming here."

Franklin says the next big plan will be to build a 200,000-250,000-square-foot convention center, which he says will not compete with Cook Convention Center.

"Great things have happened when Memphis and Tunica partnered in the past, so we are not trying to compete with Memphis," he says. "The Tyson fights would not have happened without Tunica and Memphis working together and things like the NBA All-Star Game won't happen unless we make these rooms available down here."

Nolen Canon, a member of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, says a convention center will make it easier for multiple-day conventions to come to Tunica. Casino hotels now boast an 87% occupancy that grows to 96% on weekends. That makes it harder to keep the 6,300 rooms in Tunica open to all the potential visitors.

"We want to attract mid-sized to bigger conventions and a convention center will help that," he says. "Casinos and conventions go together really well. We want something that can serve this market, so that's at the top of the heap."

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