Fifteen years ago as a cub reporter for the Daily News in Memphis, Tennessee, I noticed something nobody else seemed to care much about. Just south of the city, in Tunica County, Mississippi, the largest expansion of the casino gambling industry in America was taking place. Forget Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or even the scattered casinos on Indian reservations — in just a few years, Tunica became the third largest gaming market in the United States in what had been, in the late 1980s, probably the poorest county in the country. Jesse Jackson had traveled there then and pronounced it “America’s Ethiopia.”
I was amazed, then, that nobody — bar a few business reporters from the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the occasional parachute scribe with preconceived notions — was really looking at what happens when you take a zero-base economy, add a new industry, and shake vigorously. Tunica, in the wake of the state’s legalization, had explicitly opened up business to the casinos to jump-start a local economy moribund since the collapse of King Cotton.
With the encouragement of my editors and my reliable ’89 Dodge Raider I spent a few months driving around the byways of Tunica, interviewing locals, making FOIA requests from suspicious state officials and compiling data. I published a nine-part series in the Daily News that eventually won me the prestigious fifth-place prize for small-circulation newspapers by the Tennessee Press Association.
The only similarity between my experience and a John Grisham novel is the Daily News‘ pseudonymous appearance in The Rainmaker as “The Daily Report”.
At the height of the 1996 Congressional debate over a federal commission on gambling I published a naive op-ed in The New York Times. Even more naively I attempted a longer work (a “book”) which devolved into this more academic paper which remains, even after more than a decade, the only substantial study of the socio-economic impacts of gaming on Tunica County I know.
I post it here because it has vanished from its original home, Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center. It lives on in a few other places, notably local government white papers studying the feasibility of allowing gambling in other municipalities. My op-ed showed up in Where America Stands 1997 and the paper was cited in Ken Wells’ Travels with Barley, an exhaustive tour of America viewed through the bottom of a beer mug.