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VOL. 121 | NO. 117 | Wednesday, June 7, 2006


$1.9 billion resort could add six more casinos to Tunica's nine; could bring city closer to being the next Las Vegas, observers say

By Andy Meek

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HUMDINGER OF A PROJECT: The Canadian-based developers of the Myriad Botanical Resort in Tunica announced the sale this month of three parcels of the 540-acre resort, on which several casinos will be built. Instead of one casino built with the mega-resort, as was first announced in 2004, there now will be six - making it possibly the largest cluster of casinos currently in Tunica. -- Image Courtesy Of Myriad World Resorts

The Myriad Botanical Resort, a $1.9 billion mega-development that could be coming to Tunica as early as this fall, keeps getting bigger.

Plans for the Myriad, which were first made public in 2004, include hotels, a convention center, retail space, indoor golf, a spa, nightclubs and water and ice parks. Ground could be broken as soon as September on the eye-popping resort.

But instead of just one casino, as was announced when the project was first unveiled, now six casinos are being planned, along with associated hotels, for the 540-acre development - almost doubling the number of casinos in Tunica in one fell swoop.

Where the dice fall

On Thursday, Myriad Entertainment & Resorts Inc., the Canadian-based entertainment company that's behind the lavish casino resort, announced it had finalized agreements to sell off three of the development's casino parcels for $40 million each. Company spokesman Fred Hayne said six casinos ultimately will be spread out along Old River Lake, a river that connects to the Mississippi River. Four will be operated by outside parties, two by Myriad.

"If you really want to make Tunica a national draw, as opposed to a regional draw, you've got to go for mega-developments like this," said Dr. Jeff Wallace, a senior researcher for the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis. Wallace conducted his 1998 doctoral dissertation on the economic impact of the local gaming industry on Memphis.

After World War II, it became clear to businessman William Harrah that, to survive, the casino business needed to think bigger, and that - perhaps with ballrooms, hotels, restaurants and the like - it could even appeal to a larger public than gamblers.

The namesake of Harrah's Hotel and Casinos must have been on to something, because that same thinking is being applied to the Myriad, which will be one of the most larger-than-life, high-dollar casino resorts ever built in Mississippi once it's finished.

Making a (great big) splash

In a way, the epic scale of the resort hearkens back to the 1990s, when casino gaming first came to Tunica. At the time, reporters could barely resist seizing on a pun involving the name of the first casino in northern Mississippi - Splash Casino, which really was a nightclub and gaming hall slung on a riverboat - and announcing it had made a splash in the local gaming industry.

But if that constituted a splash, Myriad now stands to drain the pond entirely. The resort is the brainchild of Canadian businessman Scott Hawrelechko, founder and CEO of the Tunica resort project. And despite the magnitude of the project, it's his first real estate venture of any kind.

And in keeping with the celebrated philosophy of city planner Daniel Burnham - "Make no little plans" - Mississippi gaming officials have described the Myriad resort as being like nothing that has ever been built before in the state.

"There are just so many people who've been involved with this, and each of them seems to keep coming up with great ideas," Hayne said. "This is one of the reasons why the project has grown in its cost, but this sale of casino pads, for instance, is a terrific way to pay for these things. And it's just going to make the resort that much better and bigger."

High rollers, high expectations

Two days before announcing the sale of the casino parcels, Myriad also revealed it had inked a marketing agreement with International Management Group, an international sports, leisure and lifestyle marketing and management firm. IMG's client list includes supermodel Tyra Banks and golfer Tiger Woods.

The entities that bought the three casino parcels announced last week are Native American firms - High Plains Equity LLC, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. And while Myriad already got approval for the six casinos, any casino operators that move onto the parcels also will have to get gaming approval from the Mississippi Gaming Commission to operate.

Once the resort is built, there will be a myriad of reasons why all eyes are on the sprawling, world-class site. If all goes as planned, for example, Myriad will host the largest cluster of casinos available in Tunica. Hayne said the biggest cluster in Tunica now is the grouping of Gold Strike, Bally's, Sheraton and Horseshoe.

"In terms of a customer's perspective, a cluster of casinos is superior to casinos spread out all over the place," Wallace said. "That's one reason Las Vegas is so popular. You've got a huge cluster of casinos, and you can go from shop to shop to shop, so to speak, and try something different at each one."

Tunica has been home to nine casinos for the past 14 years. Gambling is about odds and statistics, and the impact of the industry on Tunica can be best described with a few revealing statistics: Five years after the first casino opened, the county's annual revenue jumped from $3.5 million to $35.8 million, according to Tunica County figures. In the last decade, according to the county's chamber of commerce, more than $4 billion has been invested in Tunica.

That, for the Mississippi county that once was derided as "America's Ethiopia" for its poverty level.

To the moon, Alice

Almost as soon as they were announced, other pieces of the Myriad resort either elicited amazement or sounded too good to be true. One of the most eye-catching is an indoor, 18-hole golf course that could provide year-round enjoyment, protecting golfers from snow, storms and sun.

Golfer Jack Nicklaus, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in the 1970s, famously panned the covered golf course in a 2004 article in the Las Vegas Sun, saying "I hope (Hawrelechko) does it, but I think there's a better chance of me flying to the moon and back."

But Wallace hinted that he'd be one of the first people to try out the green, if it gets built.

"If they really go through with these plans, this is going to be so unique, especially in the eastern U.S.," the researcher said. "I'd like indoor golf in the summertime - air-conditioned golf, man! I'll believe it when I see it, but it would be wonderful."

MORTGAGES 80 320 1,066
BUILDING PERMITS 120 590 2,248