Transformation in the Delta

As gaming boosts area economy, Tunica Airport expands; eyes scheduled service

“A lot of that activity can be attributed to Harrah’s charter program; the company owns 30-40 properties nationwide and their charter program here handles charters from North Carolina, Illinois, Mississippi, as well as the coasts; so it’s not just the Tunica properties.

“Harrah’s air staff is run out of this airport as well, and the company continues to see the value of bringing individuals into the airport.”

The airport is strategically located near the geographic center of Harrah’s properties, says Nash, making it an attractive transportation resource for the gaming company.

Capital Development
According to Nash, airport fuel sales, ground services, and rents generated an annual revenue of some $894,000 in 2008. Airport expenses totaled some $1.7 million, of which $130,820 was for matching funds for $5.23 million in federal grants received during that year.

Last year, the airport completed a $6.2 million runway and taxiway extension — this year, Tunica will break ground on a new three-bay $1.7 million aircraft rescue and firefighting facility, a commercial passenger terminal, and a 240-foot, $1.3 million commercial apron expansion.

The new terminal will be roughly 40,000 square feet; and the apron expansion will allow the airport to have up to five narrow-body aircraft at the terminal simultaneously, says Nash.

Regarding the terminal funding, “We have been working with our congressional staff and the FAA,” says Nash. “Because we don’t have scheduled service and even though we enplaned some 60,000 passengers last year, we are still not considered a primary airport.”

There was hope that the airport could get some stimulus funding; unfortunately the airport was not eligible for any stimulus funds to help with the terminal construction, says Nash. The county is now going through a bond process to fund that construction. Bids for the terminal, minus the jet bridge and baggage system installation, are coming in at some $8.2 million, relates Nash. Facility construction is expected to be completed in 2010.

The airport development is aimed at luring a commercial air carrier in order to diversify the airport’s services from predominant charter activity to a combination of scheduled air service and connections through hub airports to further support the region’s gaming market, explains Nash.

In the meantime, he says the new terminal will segregate the airport’s general aviation and charter operations, providing customers with better facilities and enhanced customer service.

Tunica did enjoy a short period of scheduled air service in 2006 when Pan Am Clipper operated three flights per week from Tunica to Atlanta-Hartsfield. That contract ended in October of that year when the airline lost its routes from Atlanta.

“We are a destination gaming market; in order for us to grow outside the regional area, it’s going to take the development of the airport,” explains Tunica visitors bureau president Franklin.

“That will go a long way to helping us diversify our economy from one of agriculture and tourism to another possible area such as manufacturing.

“Our next step is the terminal and the overall development of that to try to attract scheduled air service into the market.”

Much of the region’s economic development is a result of gaming sales tax revenue. In Mississippi, the gaming industry pays a 12 percent tax on gross gaming revenue — 8 percent of which goes to the state — and 4 percent of which comes back to the local community.

“When I say local community, I mean the county board of supervisors, which is the governing authority of the county,” says Franklin. “The airport commission is an arm of the county that is funded by a general fund revenue.

“The airport is a line item within the Tunica County overall budget; the majority of those funds come from that 4 percent gaming tax.”

Tunica is a $1.1 billion per year gaming market; the airport is having a dramatic affect based on the number of planes that utilize it, and the amount of revenue that those planes are bringing into the market, says Franklin. “It just shows that the investment that has been made in the airport is coming back to Tunica County and the state of Mississippi in the form of that gaming tax revenue.”

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