By John Branston

The almost abandoned park between a river and a harbor screams one word to me: CASINO! Should have had one 30 years ago but better late than never. 

Take a look for yourself. The gate is usually open. The park is free. You can safely ignore the “pay here” sign in the parking lot. It takes less than 30 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the big MEMPHIS sign at the south end and back.

There are lots of benches and shady trees. Watch a barge go by and learn where the Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee rivers join Big Muddy. The River Walk model of the river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico is intact and educational as ever. There is no water in it, although for some reason the “Gulf of Mexico” pool at the end is full to the brim with clear water. A couple of families were swimming in it Saturday.

A guy from Brazil took me for a local and chatted me up.  “Why don’t they charge admission and fix this place,” he asked. 

“Well, because … it’s complicated.” I said. “This opened in 1982 and there have been a lot of changes that didn’t work so good.” (And, unspoken, I gotta go and your wife over there looks like she is bored and would like to leave too.) 

Truth was, I could not get casino off my brain, and I started composing lists of pros (lots) and cons (few). 


West Memphis, Arkansas has them, ten minutes from downtown. 

Tunica, Mississippi has them, 30 minutes from downtown.

Most of the tax benefits accrue to the state and the locale that hosts them.

Memphis is a feeder market for both but gets none of the millions that could offset property tax increases like the one currently under consideration.

St. Louis and New Orleans have them. Not exactly model cities, by my lights, but still alive and kicking. So does Vicksburg, Greenville and Natchez and Shreveport and on and on to the Mississippi Coast where I had a house for six years. Casinos saved the coast, which was dying in the 1980s from Florida and Gulf Shores fever.

The little towns where I lived and hung out – Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs – were casino-free but darn close to them while maintaining their chastity, arty-farty charm and restaurant scene. Wicked Gulfport and Biloxi are doing alright too. 

Who DOESN’T have casinos is as important as who does have them because they are feeder markets: Alabama coast, Florida coast, Louisiana towns northeast of New Orleans and Lake Ponchartrain, Kentucky, Texas … And, of course, Tennessee. 

A considerable number of Tennessee state legislators and citizens see Memphis as the proverbial problem child put in the corner for a good reason, so let the problem child have his way – which is a good thing for a casino. Lawmakers can do most anything if they put their minds to it, constitutions and precedents be damned.

Gambling is as Memphis as the blues. A century ago in the days of Boss Crump, it was known as “the policy racket” as described by historian G. Wayne Dowdy in his book “Mayor Crump Don’t Like It.” Details aside, it was much like the lottery only illegal.

Tennessee has been half pregnant with the Tennessee Lottery for more than 20 years. Got your Hope Scholarship yet? You can buy a lottery ticket at a gas station and hear lottery commercials on TV or your phone, where you can also place a sports bet from home with a little tech support.

It is not easy to think of something that not been tried previously and failed in the river park: a museum, swimming pool, boat ramp, concession stands, bluegrass concerts, big-name concerts, fine dining, not-fine dining, educational betterment, a bridge-lighting party, weddings, the Memphis Belle, a playground, another playground, fishing tournaments.

Casinos don’t ask for esoteric tax breaks like corporations or downtown developers. Their backers have gobs of money, as evidenced by the gold rush in Tunica and Biloxi in the early 1990s. If anything, they underpromise and overbuild.

The Mud Island infrastructure is already there, including a four-lane bridge, interstate exit, pedestrian bridge and monorail track if not the car itself, utilities, the amphitheater and serviceable buildings. Some could be demolished without a peep of protest.

The location is stunning. Not just on the river, but sort of in the river. The Mississippi “riverboat” casinos are a joke, floating on man-made lagoons with a canal to the river.

Downtown Memphis has cast its lot with government offices. St. Jude, residents, tourism and entertainment anyway. The days of banks and brokerage firms are over.  Bass Pro is the biggest name of a business going concern. 


Gambling is sinful. It induces people who know better or ought to know better to spend money that produces taxes that benefit the rest of us.

Also sinful are porn, murder, mayhem, George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words, covetousness, liquor, not attending church, paying someone a billion dollars to shoot a basketball,  charging $15 for a hamburger and $10 for a beer, and using the phrases “college student athlete,” “ “bipartisan cooperation,” or “honorable opponent”  with a straight face. If you allow casinos then in no time at all you will have …. oh, wait, never mind.


John Branston covered Memphis as a reporter and columnist for 35 years.