AvoyellesToday.com | Avoyelles Journal, Bunkie, Record, Marksville Weekly | Avoyelles Parish, La.

In 1994, Avoyelles Parish was a mostly agricultural economy with an unemployment rate well ahead of the state average.

The public school system was the largest employer in the parish. Then the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe opened its casino. Twenty years later, Avoyelles is still a mostly agricultural economy with an unemployment rate ahead of the state average. The public school system is now the second-largest employer in the parish. The casino has the most employees. While it may sound like not much has changed, the parish really is a lot different -- and a large amount of that change is due directly or indirectly to the presence of Paragon Casino Resort. While numbers may not tell the whole story, they at least provide a point of reference. Unemployment In January 1994, the unemployment rate was 14.6 percent and there were 2,072 unemployed in the parish. The June 1994 rate was 10.8 percent. The January 1995 rate was 10.8 percent and the June rate for that year was 8.9. The one-year changes are considered to be directly related to the new business in the parish. In 2004, after 10 years of the casino’s operation, unemployment was 9.4 in January and 9.1 in June. Unemployment hit its lowest levels in 2006-2008, with January rates at 5.4 all three years and June rates at 5.6-6.3 for those three years. In January 2014, unemployment was at 6.2 and there were 947 unemployed in the parish. In short, unemployment is less than half of what it was 20 years ago and the number of unemployed is also less than half. Population Avoyelles’ population has not changed dramatically in 70 years. The 1940 Census recorded 39,256 residents. By 1980 it had increased to 41,393. It dipped in 1990 to 39,159. In the 2000 Census the population was on the upswing again with 41,481. It continued to grow in 2010, with 42,073 recorded. A recent estimate on the parish population indicates a decline to 41,632, which is about what it was in 1980. The population fluctuations fall into that category of numbers that cannot be attributed to any one factor. It is generally believed that the parish’s population was destined to continue falling and the construction of the casino and other commercial development and industrial growth that followed helped stem that tide and turn it around. Property values Avoyelles has enjoyed a “slow, steady growth” over the past 20 years, Chief Deputy Tax Assessor Heath Pastor said. “The casino has definitely had a positive influence on property values and on commercial development in the parish,” Pastor said. “Of course, it is hard to tell how much is directly attributed to the casino.” Pastor pointed out that the casino pays no property taxes because the property is owned by the tribe and located on tribal property. However, he said, it has improved the tax picture by providing jobs which in turn create a demand for more homes and businesses. Pastor looked at a few years’ taxable values for property in the parish to get a snapshot of what Avoyelles was before the casino and after it began operation. In 1984, the parish had $41,377,870 in taxable value. In 1993, the year before the casino was opened, that was $48,571,540. In 1994, taxable value was $51,253,350. In 2004, it was $74,348,170. Pastor said the casino may not tell the whole story, but the raw figures show an increase of 24 percent from 1984-1994 and of 45 percent from 1994-2004. Taxable value had a steady growth of $2-5 million a year from 2004-2011. It jumped by $20 million between 2011 and 2012, primarily due to a pipeline being constructed in the Bunkie area. It jumped almost $8 million from 2012 to 2013, when the taxable value was $129,774,178. Pastor said the taxable value of property in the parish has not been finalized for 2014. Businesses There are no hard figures as to how many businesses have opened and closed in the parish over the past 20 years -- and how many of either would be linked to the casino -- but a drive down La. Hwy 1 today passes a dramatically different landscape than greeted motorists in 1994. New hotels, new fast food restaurants, and Walmart are just a few businesses that conventional wisdom places a large credit to the “vacation destination” that is the Paragon. Transportation There had always been talk of improving La. Hwy 1 -- “Louisiana’s Main Street” as it was once called -- from Baton Rouge to Shreveport. The construction and completion of I-49 took some of the wind out of that project’s sails. It is a safe bet that the highway’s improvements through Central Louisiana would not have been completed without a major destination point on the highway. It can then be considered that the need for a safe, modern road to provide access from the main north-south interstate and major U.S. highway to that destination was largely responsible for the project continuing. The presence of the casino is a prime argument to expand the Marksville Airport to 5,000 ft. to enable mid-sized jets to use it. If funding is approved for the project, it will be largely due to the anticipated jets bringing “high rollers” to the casino. The Avoyelles Journal has requested information from the Office of Indian Affairs concerning the total amount of funds the casino has provided to parish governing boards over the past 20 years, but to date has not received a response to that request. Figures provided by the tribe and casino indicate that more than 40 million patrons from throughout the nation and internationally have played at the Tunica-Biloxi casino over the past 20 years. The casino has contributed over $11 million to local government agencies in the past 10 years and has also supported local charities. The casino employs about 1,500 people. In addition to the casino operations, Paragon includes six restaurants, a spa, a three-screen movie theater, a golf course and RV park. The casino has attracted numerous conventions and big-name entertainers to Marksville. One of the biggest conventions planned to come to the complex is the American Indian, Alaskan Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) conference, scheduled for September. Taking all figures together and combining those with the generally positive comments of civic leaders and tourism agencies, it must be concluded that Paragon has been a significant force in the parish’s economy for the past 20 years and is expected to continue to be so for many years to come.