A $26 million museum and ecological park has opened on the banks of the Mississippi River, the latest in a line of entertainment developments largely paid for with casino tax money that Tunica County officials hope will lure a wider range of visitors.
The Tunica RiverPark, which opened its doors Nov. 19, features a 37,000-square-foot museum with artifacts that date to the days of the explorer Hernando DeSoto, aquariums swimming with river life and interactive exhibits where visitors can pilot their own riverboats.
The museum sits on 130 acres of wilderness through which developers plan to build a network of trails. Nearby, tourists can float up the river on an old-fashioned paddleboat, passing both cotton fields and casinos in what was once the poorest region in the nation.
The park is the most recent in a line of projects built by a county now flush with revenue from its nine casinos and the roughly 12 million people — many from Memphis, Tenn., a short drive to the north — that the gambling halls bring in each year. The strategy is this: now that they have the gamblers, county officials want to diversify and attract families to the area, too.
"The way we look at it, the casino folks are going to come here anyway," said Tunica County spokesman Jeff Piselli. "You're going to have people from all over the place coming to see this, and they'll bring their kids. We don't really lose anything, what we get is an entire different demographic."
Country Roads Lead to Casinos
A decade ago, the landscape of this rural county of about 9,400 was mainly an unbroken terrain of cotton and soybean fields. Today, golf courses, restaurants and retailers have sprung up on the country roads that connect the county's nine casinos.
Jon Lucas, president of Park Place Entertainment's Tunica group, which owns the Grand, Sheraton and Bally's casinos, compares Tunica today to another gambling destination 20 years ago.
"It's a very similar story to the early days of Atlantic City," Lucas said. "Atlantic City had deteriorated and was an economically depressed area. It was a way of helping revive that area." The county in fiscal year 2003 made $43 million in gaming revenue, according to figures provided by the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. Since gaming came to this corner of the Delta in 1992, the county has pulled in $361.5 million.
Last year, the first fruits of the building spree resulted in a livestock and exposition center and the Tunica Museum.
The Tunica National Golf and Tennis Center, a $12 million project, is scheduled to be finished soon. A $5 million aquatic center with an Olympic-sized pool is under construction.
Officials also have $38 million plans to expand the county airport's runway and construct a new terminal building.
More projects are in the works. A group of investors called Tunica Motor Sports Inc. wants to build a motor speedway on a piece of land on U.S. 61. The group this week filed a rezoning request with the county's planning commission, said Gary Copeland, director of planning and development.
Bobby Windham is the owner of the Hollywood Cafe, a landmark diner and live music venue known for its fried dill pickles; the cafe and its late piano player were immortalized in Mark Cohn's song "Walking in Memphis" ("Now Muriel plays piano/Every Friday at the Hollywood"). Windham says the opportunities for local businesses today are enormous compared to a few years ago.
"You don't remember Vegas? Those places out there, they started with nothing, and look at them today," Windham said. "It's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger." If You Go…
TUNICA, MISS.: Home to Bally's, Fitzgeralds, Gold Strike, Grand Casino, Harrah's, Hollywood, Horseshoe, Sam's Town and Sheraton casinos. Call (888) 4TUNICA or visit www.tunicamiss.org for help with lodging or more information on local activities. TUNICA RIVERPARK: Harbor, observation deck, ecotrail, aquariums, marina. Call (662) 357-0050 or visit www.tunica-ms.com/tunica-river-park. TUNICA QUEEN: A 300-seat, non-gaming paddle-wheeler boat with cruises throughout the day and evening. Prices vary; meals and entertainment on some cruises. Contact (866) 805-3535 or www.tunicaqueen.com for details. GOLF: River Bend Links Golf Course, at www.riverbendlinks.com or (888) 539-9990; and Cottonwoods Golf Course, (662) 363-2788. Tunica National Golf and Tennis is due to open next year; call (662) 357-1472 for details. MUSEUM: History of local development, Indians, farming. Located on Highway 61 south of the casinos. Admission is free. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (662) 363-6631 for more information. NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Tunica is 19 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., home to Graceland, the Museum of American Soul Music, the Smithsonian Rock'n'Soul Museum, and the legendary Beale Street music district. For more information, contact the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau at (901) 543-5300 or www.memphistravel.com.