Casinos' cash flows, but Delta still hobbles

March 06, 1995|By Dallas Morning News

TUNICA, Miss. -- Sometimes, Maephine Clark simply stares out the screen door of her flimsy shack -- the one with no running water, the one on the outskirts of the county -- and looks toward the sudsy-looking clumps of cotton blowing over the fresh blacktop.

Except for that unlikely band of new boulevard slicing through the rural heart of the Delta, she says, it's like nothing has ever changed since Jesse Jackson came here a decade ago and labeled it "America's Ethiopia." Or since casinos arrived in the past couple of years.

Mr. Jackson's words instantly branded the area in and around Tunica, 40 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., as an enduring symbol of inescapable poverty in the United States.

In short order, the media dutifully arrived in search of the falling-down Delta homes, the latest statistic on infant-mortality rates, and the most wretched section of Tunica -- a place with the bittersweet name of Sugar Ditch.

Maephine Clark, 33, remembers all that.

But she also remembers how gambling promoters came years later -- including Hollywood Casino Corp. -- and began promising that big-time casinos would be the salvation of the Delta's lingering problems.

And now, all over America's spine -- close to the Mississippi River, where racism and sad living conditions have often jackbooted down U.S. Highway 61 -- there are millions of dollars being wagered, thousands of stuttering light bulbs, hundreds of hungry one-armed bandits and more stretch limousines than anyone has ever seen.

Ms. Clark, though, still doesn't have running water at her place just across the county line.

Her husband is still making minimum wage. She still doesn't know when she'll be able to move out of the old house sitting on a corner of an old plantation -- though she has seen new roads go up all over the area to improve access to the casinos.

"The boss said that in three years this whole area will be bought by the casinos," says the thin woman as she sits in the front room of the three-room house she shares with five other people, including her two handicapped children.

The boss is the landowner who has hired her husband for the past 18 years to farm soybeans and cotton. And he may be right about the casinos that first began arriving in 1992 -- there are nine nearby, including a 54,000-square-foot one run by Hollywood Casino Corp., which is based in Dallas.

Hollywood, which also owns the Sands Hotel & Casino in Puerto Rico and the Sands Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., along with other proponents had essentially suggested that unemployment, housing, health and education in the Delta would eventually improve, courtesy of the big bucks and thousands of jobs.

Today, it appears that some of those areas have gotten better since gambling arrived. Casino operators, including those at Hollywood, like to say that "anyone who wants a job can get a job" and that the casinos have been a "tremendous shot in the arm for the local economy." Many residents simply believed that the prosperity would begin to wash completely across the Delta straight up to Memphis.

But now some people in the Delta say that not enough casino profits are being poured into the surrounding communities. They add that the jobs being created are low-paying. That affordable housing has disappeared. That new casino employees have overextended themselves into personal debt.

"Everything was supposed to be great. I haven't seen it," says Maephine Clark.

In 1995, there are people in and around the Delta who say that Maephine Clark is wrong, that casinos really have reinvented the Delta. That the casinos have single-handedly vaulted Tunica and other chronically poor areas into a brave new world.

Tunica and good chunks of the surrounding area had a long way to go.

In 1989, the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, chaired by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, issued a report that stated:

"By any objective economic, educational or social measurement, the . . . people in the Delta region are the least prepared to participate in and contribute to the nation's effort to succeed in the world economy."

And the people near Tunica seemed to be the least prepared of the least prepared.

Fifteen years ago, Tunica County was the poorest county in the nation with almost 53 percent of its residents living in poverty. In 1979-83, Tunica had a five-year average infant-mortality rate of 29 percent. And a decade ago, Tunica had a higher infant-mortality rate than Cuba, Malaysia and French Guiana.

Five years ago, Tunica's unemployment rate was 23.52 percent -- and the percentage of people living at or below the poverty level had grown to 56.8 percent.

But the statistics couldn't even begin to hint at the dreadful, smothering day-to-day reality of Delta life.

Tar-paper shacks, unpaved roads, outhouses and disease are in greater evidence than in almost every other part of the country.

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