Business Magazine September 2019

Arkansas Casinos Leading to Serious Economic Development

Arkansas Casinos

Numbers eye-popping as state projects could reach $1 billion.

by Jeremy Peppas

An artist’s rendering of Southland Racing’s casino expansion and new hotel. (Courtesy of Southland)

The numbers are a little eye-popping when it comes to the state’s three ongoing casino projects because by any measure, $700 million is significant.

The largest of the three projects, in Pine Bluff, is the new Saracen Casino that comes with a $350 million price tag. The other two — Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis — include additions and renovations to the existing horse and dog tracks. Southland checks in at $250 million, Oaklawn at $1 billion, and a proposed casino resort in Russellville — still not a done deal — at $250 million. 

Pope County will come around and push the state’s casino projects to just under $100 million, says Little Rock attorney Alex Gray. Gray drafted what became Amendment 100, the constitutional amendment that allowed for expanded casino gaming in Arkansas.

LEGENDS

Casino gaming overwhelmingly was approved by voters in November 2018 and allowed for casino gambling at four counties in Arkansas: Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson and Pope.

Three of those counties dived right in, and now Pope County could be ready to join the party. Last month, the Pope County Quorum Court approved a resolution to support the Cherokee Nation’s proposed $250 million Legends Casino and Resort off I-40 at Russellville. But the project has been steeped in controversy, and its future remains in doubt. Despite legal obstacles, Gray told Arkansas Money & Politics that he believes Pope County eventually will move forward with casino gambling. 

SARACEN

Support came easy in Jefferson County where elected officials campaigned for the casino and the resulting economic impact. 

A groundbreaking was held in Pine Bluff in August for the Saracen Casino Resort and attended by the likes of Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

An annex with slot machines and a bar is expected to open this fall, weather permitting, with the rest of the resort opening mid-2020.

John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribal Business Committee, says the project will have 1,000 contractors working on it, with more than 1,100 permanent jobs expected to staff the resort.

“This new endeavor with good-paying jobs will bolster economic development and breathe new life into Pine Bluff and southeast Arkansas,” Rutledge told reporters at the groundbreaking.

Berrey was even more enthusiastic about the economic impact of the Quapaw Nation project.

“Every dollar spent turns over about seven times in the community,” he says. “It goes beyond the hotel and casino. The tribe is investing in agriculture and aquaculture for our restaurants’ farm-to-table program and to keep our guests safe, we’re financing new fire and police stations that will service our resort and the surrounding area.”

Among the ways Berrey says the casino was reaching out to hire locals was a job fair and recruiting students from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff among other schools.

“Many of our jobs require educated people,” Berrey says. “Gaming and hospitality are highly-regulated industries, so we’ll be working with local schools and colleges to find great employees. There’ll be a lot of great jobs for dealers, too. Back in Oklahoma, many of our dealers make six figures, so we’ve got plenty of good jobs for good people.”

Some have already started working. Berrey says 34 people have already been hired to work in what will become 80,000 square feet of casino space or in the roughly 300 rooms and suites that will be built along with restaurants, a spa and event space along with  other attractions at the casino and resort.

SOUTHLAND

Generally speaking, the drive to Memphis is an uneventful one but sooner rather than later, “heading to Memphis” will really mean one is driving to West Memphis and Southland.

Already a destination for some, the dog track on Interstate 40 has been rebranded as Southland Casino Racing and its slot machines and newly opened live table games including blackjack and roulette are already attracting people from out of state.

Southland is owned by conglomerate Delaware North, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based hospitality company with operations across the United States, and it’s making an investment in Arkansas.

The casino, with construction ongoing, will feature a 20-story hotel with 300 rooms and a parking garage.

Southland’s growth comes at Tunica’s expense. The Mississippi gambling town was essentially closed for business in 2011 after flooding along the Mississippi River.

Delaware North took full advantage with the first big expansion in 2012 when gaming facilities were added at a cost of $11 million. Another project, this time for Sammy Hagar’s Red Rocker Bar & Grill and more slot machines, came in 2014 with a cost of $39 million.

That investment has been a wise one.

Delaware North says that in 2007 the amount wagered at Southland was $240 million. But by 2015, it was pushing $2.7 billion and climbing as the appetite for gambling hasn’t been sated.

When work is complete in 2020, Southland’s employee count will be more than 1,200.

An artist’s rendering of Oaklawn’s casino expansion and new hotel. (Courtesy of Oaklawn)

OAKLAWN

Already a gambling destination, Oaklawn is headed into the turn and what officials there are calling “Phase 2” of “our exciting expansion project.”

That essentially means that some of the current parking will be closed to allow for construction.

Despite parking challenges, there’s still plenty to do at Oaklawn even though horse racing season is over.

Among the new attractions is the state’s first sports book where people can legally bet on games. On July 1, Arkansas became the ninth state in the country to offer legal sports wagering after the Arkansas Racing Commission approved Oaklawn’s request.

Since Oaklawn already has extensive space, most of the $100 million in construction is for a high-rise hotel plus an events center. An additional 28,000 square feet will be added to house additional tables and slot machines.

The latter phase is expected to be complete by January 2020 while the hotel will finish toward the tail end of 2020.

Oaklawn is adding employees to keep pace with the construction and is offering extensive perks to employees. Among those is a free college degree from the University of Arkansas’ eVersity. 

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