Arkansas: Construction begins in Pine Bluff for $350M casino, resort

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Approved by voters through a state ballot initiative last year, Amendment 100 allows casinos to be placed in Pope and Jefferson counties -- which currently have no gambling facilities -- and allows Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand their operations into full-fledged casinos.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday in Pine Bluff for the 80,000-square-foot casino with an attached 13-floor, 300-room hotel, said the construction project will be an asset for the region.

"This is a game changer for Pine Bluff and Jefferson County and will have an impact around the state of Arkansas," Griffin said. "When people drive here, when people work here, when people come from out of state, they're traveling all over the rest of Arkansas. This is going to have a far-reaching economic impact."

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington agreed that the project has the potential to provide a considerable economic boost to the region, with estimates, she said, of tax revenue reaching an estimated $10 million annually flowing into city coffers from gambling proceeds.

"That's not to mention the other residual sales taxes that will come along with it," she said. "Our overall, raw city budget is about $30 million, so if you add $10 million to that, that's huge."

Washington said, however, that the coming casino, which officials project will provide approximately 1,100 permanent jobs once construction is complete, will not be the savior of the region if other projects don't follow to provide economic diversification.

"In the research that I've done to see why casinos weren't working in some other places, they said it was because there was nothing else to do, like in Tunica, for instance," she said. "So we feel like there will be people who will come to the casino but there'll be people who will travel with them who will want to go to restaurants and to other amenities that we will develop as we move forward."

Once completed, the Saracen Casino Resort, situated on 110 acres at Martha Mitchell Expressway and U.S. 63-79, will include 2,000 slot machines and 50 table games on its 80,000-square-foot gaming floor. The casino is scheduled to open in June 2020.

The resort will also include an entertainment venue alongside a 300-room luxury hotel with restaurants and lounges, a spa, conference center, and museum and cultural center. That is scheduled to open the following December.

The first phase of construction, currently underway, will include the Saracen Casino Annex, which is set to open in October. The annex will offer visitors access to 300 slot machines.

"The resort will also include a learning center, daycare, as well as a health clinic, and safety/fire and emergency medical services facilities will be featured on the site to help ensure guests' and employees' well-being," said John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation. "Our goal is to boost the local and state economy while investing in its residents by adding jobs and partnering with the city to enhance the quality of life."

Pine Bluff Alderman Win Trafford said he believes that, once opened, Saracen Casino Resort will prove to be a big draw for people from all over the state and for people coming from out of state as well. He said the facility will offer amenities and advantages not found in other casinos.

"This is a purpose-built casino and resort and there's far more to it than gambling," Trafford said.

Officials expressed excitement not only about the tax revenue they expect the casino to generate, but also the jobs that will be generated.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the poverty rate in Jefferson County was 23.5 percent, compared with 16.4 percent for the state. Median household income was $37,630, compared with $43,813 for the state.

According to the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, the unemployment rate in Jefferson County for June 2019 was 5.7 percent, placing it fifth from the bottom among the 75 counties in Arkansas. Statewide unemployment for June 2019 was 3.5 percent, according to the state Division of Workforce Services.

Scott Hardin, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, said in addition to Saracen Casino Resort, work at Oaklawn Casino in Hot Springs and Southland Casino in West Memphis is moving ahead as well.

"I can't tell you specifically where they are in building resorts, although both are underway obviously," Hardin said. "I can tell you they are both fully licensed as casinos under Amendment 100 and no additional approval is required."

In Pope County, casino development has stalled, as local elected officials have yet to approve any applicants.

The Arkansas Racing Commission on July 18 deferred action on a Mississippi casino operator's appeal of its rejected application to build a multimillion-dollar casino resort in Pope County, saying more time is needed to review information submitted by Gulfside Casino Partnership and to prepare a full report on Gulfside's application.

Saracen Casino Resort will host a job fair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, One Convention Center Plaza.