booming today thanks to riverboat casinos like Sam's Town (top) near Robinsonville; Treasure Bay (upper r.) at Commerce Landing, the only riverboat casino in the county that actually looks like a boat; and Fitzgeralds, also at Commerce Landing. Gambling has contributed more than $12 million to county coffers since 1992. Map of Tunica County GAMBLING IS WINNER FOR MISSISSIPPI

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TUNICA, Miss.-Twelve years ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce called Tunica County the poorest in the nation, with a per capita income of $5,868.

But today, that number has nearly doubled to $10,575, the jobless rate for the county's 9,400 residents has plunged to 4.9% and retail sales are way up.

The reason? Tunica County, 30 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., has become "Little Las Vegas."

No fewer than 25 casinos line the Mississippi River from the Gulf Coast to the doorstep of Memphis. Seven call Tunica County home, four more are expected to open this year and a total of 20 have been proposed for the county in northwestern Mississippi.

"Everything is up, and business is boom-ing," said Wiley Chambers, owner of the new Grease Rack Lounge in the Blue & White Restaurant in Tunica. "And when more casinos come, everything will be up even more."

The recent additions in Tunica have allowed Mississippi to surpass New Jersey in casino square footage. As of April 1, Atlantic City had 802,000 square feet of casino space and Mississippi, 860,132.

"It is hard to say casino gaming in Mississippi is simply a phenomenon," said Danny Mitchell, chief operating officer of the Godwin Group, a Jackson agency whose clients include Tunica's Hollywood Casino. "It is here to stay. It certainly has helped our business-not to mention the [outdoor board] industry in the state and the TV stations. You can see [outdoor boards] for Mississippi casinos an hour into Louisiana."

That's not surprising since two of three customers are from outside the state.

Statewide, casinos took in $428 million in revenue in fiscal 1993, their first full calendar year of operation. That number is expected to jump to $1 billion in fiscal 1994.

Money from the casinos, which have paid the county more than $12 million in boarding and gaming fees since Splash Casino opened in October 1992, will help upgrade roads and schools, county officials say.

The state's share of boarding fees and taxes has been $128 million in the past two years.

Mississippi's economic outlook is among the sunniest in the Sun Belt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

"Mississippi is No. 2 in economic outlook, and that's a change," said Robert Forrestal, president-CEO of the Fed. Mr. Forrestal cited gaming as the biggest factor in the state's economic showing.

"During 1993, gaming represented 25% to 33% of the new jobs created in the state," said Denton Gibbs, public relations director for the Mississippi Department of Economic & Community Development.

Casinos employed 10,000 people last year, a number expected to more than double to 22,000 in 1994.

"And for the second consecutive year, the state budget surplus in state government was increased," Mr. Gibbs said. "It was in excess of $300 million last year, and we figure gaming contributed to probably 35% of that."

State officials say because of that windfall, Mississippi can now address infrastructure enhancement projects.

"We can repair bridges and improve and enlarge highways, such as what we are doing now on Highway 61 from Memphis to Tunica and Highway 90 on the Gulf Coast," Mr. Gibbs said.

"It's no doubt we had an image problem, and casinos have helped Mississippi's image perception," said George Smith, director of tourism for the state.

He said casinos statewide have a combined marketing budget of $100 million, adding, "Put that with the state's $10 million, plus $7.5 million for direct marketing, and we have the ability to run an effective marketing campaign."

Mr. Smith, whose department didn't have a marketing budget two years ago, said he will get out Mississippi's tourism message this year with ads in 36 national and regional publications. And for the first time, Mississippi is able to use the electronic media and will air commercials on the Nashville Network, one national TV network and some spot markets.

The Ramey Agency, Jackson, handles Mississippi's 1994 tourism campaign, which carries the theme, "The South's warmest welcome."

The media are also benefiting.

"We have seen growth and casinos have had much to do with it," said Frankie Thomas, VP-general sales manager at WLBT-TV in Jackson. "We have five casinos advertising with us now and could have more, but we have a limit to what we will accept."

Paul Gartland, general manager of Lamar Outdoor Advertising in Gulfport, said an outdoor salesman in Mississippi today would do very well.

"If I were one, I would think I had died and gone to heaven," said Lance Hopkins, account supervisor for the Godwin Group.

Mr. Gartland said revenue from gaming has been great but casinos have also created spin-offs for other businesses coming in and use outdoor advertising.

"That has resulted in more hotel business, and they use [outdoor boards]" said Mr. Gartland, noting his office has added 50 faces on the Gulf Coast alone. "We could do more if we weren't so regulated."

The casinos have also been good for retail growth. Sales last year were up statewide-a 15% increase on the Gulf Coast and 13% in northwestern Mississippi. In the northeastern corner of the state, where there's no gaming, sales were up 11%.

On the Gulf Coast, the economy can be summed up in one word-gambling.

A report from the Harrison County Development Commission for last fiscal year noted gambling has provided economic stimulus "unequaled in modern times."

"It is expected that the casino industry will produce more than $500 million in total capital investments in the Gulf Coast economy this year," the report said.

It has already produced a 10% increase in the number of jobs there and a 28% increase in gross sales tax, Harrison County officials say.

Even though the Gulf Coast had about a year jump on casinos, many feel Tunica County has the most development potential.

"One thing that Tunica has that the coast doesn't is abundant land," Mr. Mitchell said. "And they don't have hurricanes up there."

Two land developers who are taking advantage of those facts are Dick Flowers and Dutch Parker, who are partners in the Mhoon Landing Casino Resort in Tunica County. They announced plans for a 300-acre development to include hotels, apartments, recreational vehicle park, clubs, theaters, restaurants, shopping center, tennis and fitness center, airport and golf course. Major hotels chains such as Choice International, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn have said they will build there.

The fact that there are more than 50 applications on the desk of the Mississippi Gaming Commission doesn't bother those already in the game.

"The market [in Tunica] is big enough for a number of successful competitors," said Mike Rose, chairman of the Promus Cos. in Memphis, owners of Harrah's casinos in Tunica County and Vicksburg.

Things are going so well in the state now that even the prospect of a giant land-based casino in New Orleans and 15 new riverboats in Louisiana can't shake the spirit of Mississippi casino operators.

"We don't take it for granted," Mr. Mitchell said. "I believe the state has approached it with a jaundiced eye because they aren't sure it's going to last."

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