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Tunica County officials reject proposal to convert abandoned casino complex into housing for migrant youth

Harrah's Hotel Complex in Tunica
Harrah's Hotel Complex in Tunica (Photo from Tripadvisor)

Initial plans to house undocumented migrant youth in a vacant north Mississippi casino’s hotels failed to move forward.

A narrow 3-2 vote by the Tunica County Board of Supervisors on Thursday will prevent a company from converting the former Harrah’s Casino Complex into an influx care facility (ICF) through the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Shantrell Nicks, representing Rapid Deployment, the private entity looking to place the minors in the Tunica facilities, urged supervisors to support the proposal to allow what she called a “humanitarian effort” to provide temporary housing for children between the ages of 4-17.

“These children have crossed the border because they are trying to escape situations of asylum, particularly some type of abandonment or abuse. They’re victims of crimes and they have families that are legal residents that they are trying to be reunited with,” Nicks said. “This humanitarian effort would be totally funded by the federal government.”

The request from Rapid Deployment, a Mobile, Ala. business tasked with providing emergency response services, follows a competitive task order sent out to vendors seeking proposals to establish a new ICF to house roughly 2,000 migrant youth. Rapid Deployment quickly conveyed interest in converting the 1,356-bedroom Tunica hotel complex, which has been empty since 2014, into a center to accommodate the minors, though Nicks said the property would max out at 250 occupants.

Despite outcries from both federal and state officials as well as local law enforcement, Nicks contended that the property being used as an ICF would not burden taxpayers. She stated that the federal government would be footing the bill for services including housing, medical care, education, meals, security, and supervision of the minors.

On the public safety front, it was noted that youth housed in the former casino grounds would not be allowed to exit the premises without being escorted by an adult staffer.

“We have a building in Tunica County that’s been unused for 10 years that’s for sale,” Nicks said, noting previous failed attempts by site developers to put the property to use. “This is an opportunity at a humanitarian effort to help children and also help the current property owners trying to sell the property and stimulate the economy in Tunica County.”

Nonetheless, a small majority of supervisors did not find the concept to be in the best interest of residents in the county and surrounding area. Nicks pledged to continue efforts to sway policymakers in the direction of supporting the notion of using the site that once held the largest casino complex between Las Vegas and Atlantic City as an ICF.

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, praised the majority decision by the supervisors but conveyed doubts that Thursday’s vote marked the final time the topic of using the Tunica site as an ICF would be brought up. In a letter penned to the Department of Health and Human Services, Wicker aired out grievances over “chronic mismanagement” by the ORR and asked the federal agency to keep him in the loop on any contracting proposals involving an ICF in Mississippi.

“Many of my constituents had raised concerns about this project’s impact on the community. It was clear that Tunica County’s health care, transportation, and other services were not prepared for this sudden influx,” Wicker said. “I am glad this decision was halted for now, but I am still worried about a similar proposal in the future and have shared those with HHS.”

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