Miss. towns hope their fortunes change with riverboat gambling

March 15, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

NATCHEZ, Miss. -- To do a little time-traveling, stand on the rim of the high clay bluffs at the edge of town, near the creaky white porch of a big antebellum home. Look down to the roiling mud of the Mississippi River, northward to where trees crowd the bank and a pale yellow sandbar lies open to the sun. After a moment, if a barge doesn't lumber into sight, one can envision a gleaming paddle-wheeler thrashing around the bend.

By late this summer, it could really happen.

Following the lead of Iowa and Illinois, Mississippi towns such as Natchez are working to bring the riverboat back, this time stocked with roulette wheels and gaming tables, in hope of luring free-spending gamblers, tourists and developers to this poorest of states.

"These gambling developments are the largest employment opportunities here in more than 30 years," said Brad Chism, head of the Natchez-Adams County Economic and Community Development Authority.

Mr. Chism stood on the bluff overlooking the river, pointing below to the three sites staked out by different investors. Two have already landed a license to operate, and the third is expected to do so later this month.

But even with only one gambling boat up and running, Mr. Chism figures it could produce from several hundred jobs, counting the likely boost in local tourism, with an added payroll of $10 million to $20 million, and up to $1 million in additional local taxes. Any of that would come in handy in a county where the unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent.

Four other counties -- one of them on the Gulf Coast -- have gambling boats as well, although Natchez will likely be the first to get started.

If gambling dollars do begin to flow into Mississippi, the big question then will be whether they spread to the places that need them most. In state-by-state measures of wealth and well-being, Mississippi finishes last about as often as the Cleveland Indians, and among its poorest counties are some of those along the river, which haven't thrived since the paddle-wheelers last dominated river traffic.

Three of those counties -- Issaquena, Tunica and Claiborne -- have also legalized riverboat gambling -- after the legislature decided to leave the decision up to the locals -- but none is as far along in its efforts as Adams County. (The only other Mississippi counties to approve of floating casinos so far are Hancock and Harrison, on the Gulf Coast.)

The land of the river counties is in many stretches a land of tumbledown shacks where only the dirt is rich -- dank, black topsoil a full 20 feet deep, built up by centuries of the river slipping its banks with its cargo of southbound silt. The levee prevents such flooding now, and the fields grudgingly give back their wealth with each crop of cotton, which blankets the delta like a blizzard every summer. Even in the dead of winter, dingy cotton from the last harvest still clots highway shoulders like week-old snow.

But other than farm jobs, these counties have little to offer someone looking for work. In Issaquena County, unemployment is about 20 percent in months when there's no farm work to be done. "Everything is quiet," said Unita Blackwell, mayor of the Issaquena County seat of Mayersville, a town of about 280 people. "The people voted for it to be, and that's all we've heard."

Location doesn't help, nor does the county's population of a few thousand. "Developers look at a lot of factors, and those areas are pretty remote in terms of infrastructure and access," said Mississippi Gaming Commissioner Royal Walker.

In Natchez, despite the predictions of a late-summer start-up, not everyone is convinced that chances are any better than an odd-or-even spin of a roulette wheel.

So far the only sign of any riverboat is a small, forlorn looking paddle-wheeler moored near Natchez on the Louisiana side of the river. Its owner moved the boat there to await renovation, but for now it lists slightly to one side, nearly brushing up against the scrub growth that rises from the muddy riverbank.

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