Gambling On The Future
Arkansas Cities Await Impact of Casinos
By MARK CARTER
Casino legalization in Arkansas will alter the way impacted cities plan for the future, but it may take some time for those plans to take shape. City planning updates have been launched in Hot Springs and West Memphis to accommodate the addition of live casino gaming at the cities’ respective racetracks and the commercial growth expected to piggyback off it. But city officials don’t yet know exactly what those updates could look like.
The state’s 2005 allowance for “casinos-light” at Oaklawn thoroughbred racing in Hot Springs and Southland greyhound racing in West Memphis introduced electronic games of skill such as video slots and poker and nudged each city closer to live, full-time gambling. Arkansas voters upped the ante in 2018 with passage of Issue 4 in the November general election. That measure amended the state constitution to approve live casino-gaming licenses for Oaklawn and Southland and allow for casinos in Pine Bluff and Russellville.
While legal challenges may yet derail any casino plans in Russellville, where local voters overwhelmingly opposed the ballot measure, Pine Bluff is ready to roll the dice. With the support of local voters behind them, city leaders endorsed a plan by the Quapaw Nation to build a casino in the heart of the tribe’s historic, Southeast Arkansas homeland. Quapaw leaders are optimistic their first Arkansas venture can duplicate the success of tribe casinos in neighboring states while Pine Bluff officials simply hope it can help jump-start the area’s lagging economy. Pine Bluff city leaders aren’t ready to talk about any potential planning changes until the project receives a gaming license from the state racing commission in June at the earliest.
Meanwhile, officials at Oaklawn and Southland wasted no time once the 2018 calendar turned to start the process of converting into actual casinos. Eight live tables were added to the Oaklawn stable of roughly 1,300 electronic games, while Southland now offers 40 live tables and about 2,000 traditional slot machines. More tables and slots are on the way, and both tracks plan to open sports books in 2019, giving patrons even more incentive to visit.
Hot Springs officials welcome all the growth Oaklawn can give them. Opened in 1904, Oaklawn has been a big part of the city’s history and its $100 million-plus expansion represents another chapter in the city’s rich story. Begun in May following the conclusion of the 2019 racing season, the expansion includes 28,000 square-feet of new gaming space; a seven-story, luxury hotel with 200 rooms; an adjacent, 14,000-square-foot, multi-purpose center accommodating up to 1,500 people for concerts, meetings and banquets; and various amenities including a new restaurant and other dining options, an outdoor pool, a fitness center and a spa.
The full expansion is scheduled to be ready in time for the 2020 live racing season. The city’s new comprehensive plan remains in its early stages, but one thing is certain—a portion of it will focus on Oaklawn and its neighborhood along Central Avenue. Some commercial development, possibly spurred by Oaklawn’s plans, has already popped up along the Central Avenue and Lake Hamilton corridors and downtown.
Hot Springs Assistant City Manager Lance Spicer said it’s hard to predict just how much effect Oaklawn’s growth will have, but he expects it to greatly enhance the city’s already elevated hospitality profile.
“It’s too early to tell exactly the impact of this large-scale expansion,” Spicer said. “Oaklawn and Hot Springs have grown up together somewhat and the Central Avenue corridor has, too. The impact likely will extend far beyond the confines of Oaklawn Park. It’s a game changer.”
The most notable change will be a new entrance and traffic light at Central Avenue and Golf Links Road, south of Oaklawn’s current entrance. Spicer said the existing entrance and light will be abandoned and the reconfiguration should help move traffic more efficiently. The stretch of Central Avenue along the Oaklawn footprint tallied a daily count of more than 20,000 vehicles in 2018, according to the Arkansas Department of Transportation. Of course, it’s expected to swell post-expansion, and accommodating tourists represents job one for Hot Springs.
“By spacing the traffic lights out further, it will ease the stacking experienced on heavy race-traffic days,” Spicer said.
In West Memphis, Southland’s planned $250 million expansion entails a 20-story hotel with 288 rooms, 12 penthouse suites and four restaurants. Project construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2019 and take 12 months for the casino, 18 months for the hotel. Southland plans to hire about 600 new employees once the expansion is complete, almost doubling its current workforce of 819. This in addition to three new hotels opened or under development along the I-55 corridor close to the track ,which has city officials expecting more commercial growth.
The Grow West Memphis 2040 campaign will create a comprehensive city plan to manage new growth and identify where and how the city should grow. Though still in development, it already includes a special planning district to address development possibilities and potential impacts of an expanded Southland.
Mallory Darby, project manager for the West Memphis Office of Economic Development, said the city expects an influx of ancillary businesses tied to casino-generated tourism.
“The area in and around Southland provides great opportunity for growth as an entertainment district,” she said. “It’s all part of a focus on creating opportunity for consumers to have a more robust experience while visiting West Memphis and also elevating the quality of life for citizens of West Memphis.”
The timeline for any infusion of tourist dollars into Pine Bluff remains unclear as city and tribal officials await license approval. Assuming one is granted in June and ground is broken, the planned Saracen Casino Resort, named for a former Quapaw chief buried in Pine Bluff, could open by spring 2020.
The $350 million project will sit on about 300 acres at the corner of Martha Mitchell Expressway and Highway 63 across from the Pines Mall. The casino portion of the project will entail 80,000 square-feet with 50 live gaming tables and 2,300 slot machines. Phase Two, also scheduled for a 2020 completion, includes a 350-room hotel with meeting space, an entertainment venue, a spa and multiple restaurants and lounges. Also planned are a museum and cultural center and employee amenities including a health clinic, child learning center and on-site daycare.
Hitching one’s wagon to a casino is no sure thing, but local officials are counting on the Saracen to help revitalize a city and region worn down by decades of declining population and industry. The economic impact of the tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort just outside Joplin, Missouri, has been significant. In its first 10 years of operation, Downstream profits provided more than $100 million to the Quapaw general fund, while a 2012 independent study estimated a regional economic impact of $1 billion over the casino’s first five years.
As stipulated under the new Arkansas law, Pine Bluff will take in 19.5 percent of casino proceeds while 8 percent will go to the county.
Though the city’s growth plans remain unclear, the tribe is anticipating casino-driven growth for the area. Its purchase earlier this year of a truck stop on Highway 63 across from the project site is evidence of that optimism. The tribe anticipates hiring roughly 1,000 temporary construction workers and up to 1,100 permanent workers for the finished product.
But count Larry Reynolds, director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, as very cautiously optimistic. He noted potential hurdles yet to be cleared once the gaming license is in hand include the annexation of site property not currently within city limits; the transfer of ownership from the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County to the tribe’s Downstream Development Authority, which will manage the property and supply security and fire protection; the development of necessary city infrastructure to accommodate a large casino; and finding local bodies to fill all the new jobs created by the project.
“As far as the impact, that remains to be seen,” Reynolds said. “Around here, it’s a guess. Nobody’s ever dealt with a casino before.”