Tunica Resorts casinos have had a rough go of things so far in 2023.
There was an armed robbery at one venue, there was another armed robbery at another venue, a tornado threatened operations of several other sites, a major wind farm is getting built in the community, and — as a potential nail in the coffin — the Horseshoe Casino is opening a new Guy Fieri restaurant. Nothing says economic downturn like Guy Fieri’s Tunica Kitchen + Bar.
Of course, we’re kidding. At least about that last thing. Maybe.
However, it’s clear that the area is struggling. While the casinos in Tunica are doing okay comparatively, they don’t seem to be enough to keep the broader county afloat. Residents are fleeing the area, and the median income in Tunica County is just over $41,000. Approximately one quarter of the local population lives under the poverty line.
That’s why the wind farm, developed by AES with heavy investment from Amazon, is coming to the region. In addition to electricity, the wind farm is supposed to generate up to $60 million in tax revenue for Tunica County “over the life of the project.”
Now, that doesn’t seem like a whole lot, to be honest. And frankly, it isn’t.
Tunica city planners claim the money will go toward education primarily, but the reality is that even for a badly impoverished area, a few million dollars a year “for education” isn’t going to amount to much. And the tradeoff is a giant, ugly, loud, desolate wind farm. We just hope the Tunica casino hotels are both out of earshot and eyeshot of these things.
If Tunica County is really interested in a tax windfall to shore things up along the river, they’d be better served making a coalition with their counterparts in Biloxi and petitioning the state to allow mobile online casino gambling.
The taxes from statewide mobile gambling in Mississippi would be substantially higher than whatever pittance the AES wind farm is on track to generate, and it would be trivial to allot a meaningful percentage of that to the communities in which the operators actually have facilities.
But naturally, the wind farm is an easier sell, and it’s not a this-or-that situation. It can be both, and the wind farm has the benefit of not requiring state approval and legislative action. Because even though online MS casinos make all the sense in the world from a domestic operator perspective, the reality is that the state’s been dragging its feet on the inevitability.
And it is inevitable.
Most of the country’s biggest casino markets already allow online casino gambling. Pennsylvania allows it, New Jersey allows it, Michigan allows it. And in all those states, tax revenues have shown that iGaming is a winner.
During the COVID shutdowns, Atlantic City kept the lights on in the casino district on the strength of their iGaming revenues while Las Vegas saw a 95% decline in year-over-year income. Many Vegas casinos — particularly older venues not back by the deep pockets of big brands — shut down permanently.
Had similar troubles happened in AC, AC might be no more. But iGaming saved the industry there, and it could save the community here in Tunica.
Ironically, the market that saw the most damage during COVID — Las Vegas — is probably the only USA casino market that wouldn’t actually profit from legal online casino games.
Thanks to its reputation as the global gambling destination and the fact that casinos are only a part of how huge Vegas resorts make their money, Vegas can rely on foot traffic from locals and visitors to make all the money they need to make. They can weather a bad year without risking the 5-10% market cannibalization that online gambling generally brings to associated brick-and-mortar facilities.
Vegas isn’t just a gambling destination, in other words. It’s built on gambling, but there’s a lot more at play.
In a place like Tunica (or Biloxi, for that matter), the economic realities of the surrounding communities are such that iGaming would be a major net positive for everyone involved.
Truth be told, the only thing stopping Mississippi from legalizing state-wide iGaming is politics.
The state’s conservative government likes to pretend that keeping gambling off the Internet (which it can’t do anyway, since offshore/international online casinos are legal to access by MS residents) means they’re “protecting” the state’s youth from some bogeyman vice.
Of course, modern technology and industry-standard operations already use geofencing and age verification to guarantee that underage gamblers are disallowed, so it’s kind of a moot point.
Eventually, they’ll figure it out.
Until then, maybe the wind farm will be a breath of fresh air for Tunica County.