Nearly two months after the Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approved a gaming license for the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma in Pine Bluff, the business partnership for the Indian tribe and host of dignitaries will break ground Monday (Aug. 5) on the $350 million gaming complex in Jefferson County.
Based on the original blueprints from Quapaw Nation’s Downstream Development Authority LLC, the Saracen Casino Resort will include 570,000 square feet of construction on 110 acres, including an 80,000 square-foot gaming floor, 300-room hotel, convention center and entertainment venue. Quapaw Nation officials have said the construction stage will produce more than 1,000 construction jobs, which is expected to take place over 18 months.
In early June, Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey told the state Racing Commission (ARC) that he spent considerable time and effort convincing Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson and local community and business leaders of the merits of the casino project that is expected to bring over 1,100 permanent jobs to the region.
“We are a little different than another gaming company. We are a community-centric nation that believes in uplifting people,” said Berry. “Even though it is about revenue, this is not for shareholders – it is for the community.”
Berrey told also Talk Business & Politics that the Quapaw Nation partnership would seek Wall Street backing for the debt and capital funding to finance the project. Five months ahead of the expected late 2020 or early 2021 grand opening, the federally-protected Indian tribe also plans to make 300 gaming slots available at a Pine Bluff trucking stop located on land purchased by his partnership.
That Saracen Casino Q-Store, Berrey said, will not only expand that trucking business, but include a fire and police substation for city and county use. As a part of the groundbreaking ceremony, the trucking plaza casino will hold a pre-grand opening on Thursday and Saturday (August 1 and 3) and host several breakfasts and lunches for construction crews and Pine Bluff and Jefferson County first responders and teachers.
The groundbreaking ceremony next week will not only include the Pine Bluff mayor, county judge and other Jefferson County officials, but Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge will represent the state of Arkansas. Crossett native Barry Switzer, former Dallas Cowboy and longtime University of Oklahoma coach, will also make an appearance at the event.
POPE COUNTY PROJECTS STILL TABLED
In November, Arkansas voters approved Issue 4, now Amendment 100, to allow for expanded casino operations at Oaklawn (Garland Co.), Southland (Crittenden Co.) and new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties. However, that ballot issue failed in Pope County by a 60-40% margin, and voters there also passed a local ordinance by a nearly 70% margin that requires an election to allow a casino to be built in the area.
At the same June 13 meeting where state regulators gave the go ahead for the Pine Bluff casino, the seven-person commission rejected five applications for Pope County that were submitted ahead of the state’s May 31 deadline because of lack of local support. The regulatory panel also universally approved a motion to reopen the process to review a new application from Pope County through September, if that proposal has a letter of recommendation from local and county officials.
In early July, state racing commissioners also delayed a decision concerning the appeal of a gaming license for Gulfport, Miss.-based Gulfside Casino Partnership, which had its application rejected at the June meeting because its letter of support was not from sitting Pope County government officials. Gulfside had announced plans in late 2018 to build a $250 million casino complex in Russellville.
Attorneys for the Mississippi casino operator have protested the commission’s June ruling, along with a bill approved in the 2019 session sponsored by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, that stipulates approval for a casino in either Pope or Jefferson County must come from the local quorum court, county judge or mayor at the time an application is made for a casino license.
Besides Gulfside, state gaming officials have also received bids for casino licenses from Oklahoma-based Cherokee and Choctaw Nations; Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group LLC, which will license with the Hard Rock Cafe brand; and the Robert and Ruth Kehl family of Iowa, applying as the River Ridge Casino Resort.
Less than two weeks after Arkansas voters approved the gambling initiative in November 2018, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming announced plans for a $100 million-plus project that will include a new high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center, a larger gaming area and extra on-site parking. That project is expected to be completed early next year.
Privately-held Delaware North, owner of Southland, has also revealed plans to build a new 240,000 square foot casino complex and a 20-story, 300-room hotel by early 2021 in the Crittenden County bedroom community across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn.