- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

TUNICA RESORTS, Miss. (AP) - It was 3:30 p.m. on a Monday in May at Harrah’s Tunica Hotel & Casino in northwestern Mississippi.

Gamblers were few in number, and dealers stood ready at idle card tables.

It was easy to see why Caesars Entertainment Corp. was giving up on the 136,000 square-foot casino floor - the largest between New Jersey and Las Vegas. Harrah’s closed June 2 - 18 years after it first opened as the Grand Casino.

The Tunica Miracle - as boosters called the coming of gambling to what had been an isolated, economically moribund slice of the Mississippi Delta - is over. A boom that peaked with 13,000 jobs has slid into a struggle for survival.

The first casino opened on a riverboat docked at a remote river landing in 1992. With people lining up, more casinos came, building glitzy resorts in Tunica County’s northern end, as close to Memphis, Tennessee, as possible. In the first full year after Harrah’s began operation, casinos in Tunica County won $776 million from gamblers. The peak came in 2006, when revenue reached almost $1.2 billion.

But increased competition and a recession that drained patrons’ pocketbooks began to bite. In 2013, Tunica’s casinos took in about $700 million.

Employment has been more than halved since its peak in 2001, when Tunica County counted 13,000 workers in the gambling industry. After the last gambler left the purple-pattern carpet on the Harrah’s barge, so did about 1,000 jobs, dropping Tunica’s total to about 6,000.

Sabrina Johnson was a cook at Harrah’s for 16 years. She said she survived multiple rounds of layoffs but saw her hours shrink to less than 40 a week.

The 45-year-old Coahoma County resident is now looking for a new job, but says full-time options are scarce in Tunica and her home county, and she doubts she can equal the $13.80 an hour she was making at Harrah’s.

“I’ve still got to have some kind of income coming in,” Johnson said. “The bills aren’t going to stop.”

Casino owners and analysts are drawing parallels with New Jersey’s struggling casino center.

“Tunica looks and feels a lot like a market like Atlantic City,” said Caesars regional President R. Scott Barber.

Caesars, facing $23.6 billion in debt, said it wasn’t making enough money to run the sprawling 2,200-acre Harrah’s campus. It included more than 1,200 hotel rooms in three buildings, a golf course, a shooting range, an RV park and a kids arcade, knit together by a 24-hour bus system that connected Harrah’s with Caesars’ two other nearby casinos in Tunica County. Those properties - the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel and the Tunica Roadhouse Casino with their 1,800 jobs - stayed open. Caesars is investing $10 million in the renovation of the Horseshoe.

“We feel good about where we are,” Barber said. “We feel bad about the ultimate outcome, but it’s a good business decision for the long-term future of the company.”

But Harrah’s folding will make it harder for the Tunica community. Harrah’s has the largest convention facility in the market. Its closing will cut advertising revenue for the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau and local government will have less revenue to take care of the extensive infrastructure it built - including an airport, a fire department, and a public recreation center - when revenues surged with gambling.

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