By Kelly Carson | Watchdog.org
TUNICA, Miss. — Promises. Tunica, Miss., seems to live on promises.
Casinos promised to bring jobs to this impoverished corner of northwest Mississippi. And for a while, it worked. Unemployment dropped to 5.7 percent in August 2007. But then the recession hit, and the casinos and associated hotels started cutting back on those dealer jobs, those housekeeping jobs, those janitor jobs. In February, the unemployment rate stood at 20.1 percent, the highest in the state.
It’s not all casinos, though. The once-thriving agricultural sector in the northern Mississippi Delta, where cotton was king, is in a slump. It’s just too expensive to farm family land.
Yes, promises have been made – big plans to develop the rich delta dirt into something that will provide family-supporting jobs.
“There was the NASCAR track, other casinos that planned to come here that never came,” said Brooks Taylor, publisher of the Tunica Times, a weekly newspaper serving the county. “There were other kinds of developments — subdivisions that never materialized and some things that did start but sort of petered out.”
The town of Tunica, county seat of Tunica County, is home to fewer than 2,000 people. Tunica County has fewer than 11,000 people, though it is considered part of the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area.
Walking around three of the eight casinos in Robinsonville — also known as Tunica Resort — just north of Tunica off U.S. 61, employees wear name tags sporting their hometowns, places like West Helena, Ark., West Memphis, Ark., Mariana, Ark. They drive in each day to work as waitresses, bartenders, slot machine technicians, dealers and parking valets.
They didn’t want to talk on the record about what it’s like working at the casino. Two women said simply they were glad to have a job — any job. After their shifts, they go back to their homes across the state line west of the Mississippi River..
Hoping to diversify, Tunica County, Tunica city and Mississippi officials have tried numerous times to bring family-supporting manufacturing jobs, and at times it appeared they hit the jackpot.
The German manufacturer SXP Schulz Xtruded Products announced Jan. 4, 2010, that it would build a site in Tunica County. The manufacturer has 170 employees, but still is in its startup phase, according to Jennifer Southern, the company’s executive administrative assistant.
While Southern said she could not disclose actual production numbers — “That’s not something we’re publicizing at this time” — she did say hiring locally is a priority for SXP Schultz.
“Very many of our employees are local. I don’t know how many, but the majority are local,” she said in a telephone interview. “We do as much hiring from Tunica and the surrounding counties as possible.”
And then there’s GreenTech Automotive Inc., the electric-car manufacturer that promised hundreds of jobs making small electric cars slightly larger than golf carts.
“As far as I know they haven’t hired anybody local, either for the office here or that may work up at Horn Lake,” said Taylor, the newspaper publisher. “I really don’t think anything will ever be done.”
Site preparation was done on the land on U.S. 61 in Robinsonville, but the job shack that was there while dirt was being moved around is gone. Only a sign remains.
When asked about the state’s efforts to bring jobs to Tunica County, and its economic development programs, Taylor said more transparency is needed.
“Mississippi has had some disasters,” she said. “What they’ve spent in state money, in taxpayer money, someone must have known it wouldn’t succeed. If that information was more forthcoming for newspapers or for anyone else who wanted to have it, someone would say the emperor has no clothes.”
We tried to talk to Lyn Arnold, president and chief executive officer of the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation. Granted, we arrived at her Main Street Tunica office shortly before noon April 24. She said she couldn’t talk because she was rushing off to a function with two other women. Asked if we could walk with her and ask her a few questions, she said no, they were driving to the event. Asked if we could call her later, she said no. Asked if she had a business card, she pointed to a table where two stacks of neatly printed cut-cornered cards were displayed. And then she left.
Arnold did not return numerous emails messages and voice-mail messages.
Watch more with Brooks Taylor
Contact Kelly Carson at [email protected]
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