JACKPOT: Saracen Casino adds octane to Pine Bluff’s comeback
November 2-8, 2020
By Dwain Hebda
Standing dead center on the gaming floor of Saracen Casino Resort, it’s easy to forget where you are, both literally and symbolically.
In the literal sense this is true by design. Casinos are all about keeping people in place and playing as long as possible, the better to tilt the law of averages in favor of the house. For decades, casinos have been designed to corral people with gaming tables, slots and other attractions as garish light and sound replaces windows, the better to blur the passage of time.
Saracen, which officially opened Oct. 20, employs these time-honored tricks of the trade throughout its 80,000 square feet of space. More than 2,000 slot machines spread out like nerve endings from a central spinal column of 30-plus blackjack, craps and roulette tables down the middle of the casino floor. It’s easy to lose one’s bearings and if you do manage to get too close to the exits, Saracen’s restaurants ringing the perimeter — from food court to buffet to high-end steakhouse — further entice guests to stay put.
Symbolically, you forget this shiny attraction — all $285 million of it, soon to balloon to $350 million once the hotel is finished — is not in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or Tunica. It’s not even in one of the largest cities in Arkansas. Unless you walk outside and gaze at the Delta flats of Jefferson County stretching in all directions, you easily forget you are in greater Pine Bluff, a city once synonymous only with decline, decay and despair.
At present, the physical juxtaposition is jarring, with the colossal casino dwarfing everything its shadow touches. But metaphysically, even the casual observer can feel the tide turning for the former citadel of culture and commerce that the city was once and suddenly feels destined to become again.
“Mayor [Shirley] Washington and other leaders here in Pine Bluff came to see me, this was like, two and a half years ago,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson during congratulatory remarks at a soft opening event for media and VIPs Oct. 15. “They briefed me on what they wanted to do and their vision to have a casino here, in Pine Bluff.
“They looked at me and presented the case to me and I didn’t say it, but I thought in my mind, ‘Good luck to you.’ Listen, two and a half years later, here we are today.”
Hutchinson’s skepticism was well-founded. A decade ago, the odds of Pine Bluff landing the largest construction project in Arkansas and the state’s first purpose-built casino would have been so long they wouldn’t have made it onto the board of Saracen’s sprawling sports book.
No less than a constitutional amendment would be required for such a project to be allowed, to say nothing of overcoming the reputation and derelict condition of the city itself. This was a place, after all, once famously reduced to roping off its main drag for fear one of its crumbling buildings would collapse without warning.
Even the project’s staunchest proponents, some of whom took their victory lap to the dais at the Oct. 15 event, confessed the preposterousness of the idea. Yet somehow, one by one, the wins kept mounting, notably voter approval of Amendment 100 in 2018 to expand casino gambling in Pope and Jefferson counties and the Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approving a casino license for Saracen in June of last year.
“This vision started as a dream and that dream invoked a conversation. That conversation brought more communication. With communication, it built relationships. It built relationships that have brought us to where we are today,” said Judge Gerald Robinson, whose soft-opening remarks carried the vivacious tone of a tent-revival preacher.
“When I was approached with this, I had some doubts. But as I continued to communicate and as the relationships continued to build, I knew that we were doing the right thing by allowing this casino to be built. This represents economic stability for this region, not only for Jefferson County, but for all of Southeast Arkansas.”
The prospective payoff of the venture is, of course, substantial. According to the guidelines of the constitutional amendment, taxes of 13% on the first $150 million of net gaming revenue and around 20% of gaming revenue above $150 million go to various state, county and local beneficiaries. Of this, 55% goes to the state’s general fund; 17.5% to the state racing commission to contribute to horse and greyhound racing purses; 8% to Jefferson County and 19.5% to the City of Pine Bluff.
But an even more immediate local impact has been the temporary and permanent employment created through the Saracen venture. More than 1,000 construction jobs were created and more than 800 of an estimated 1,100-plus permanent jobs have been filled. And that is before construction of a forthcoming 300-room luxury hotel to feature restaurants and lounges, a spa, conference center, museum and cultural center.
Despite all of this, not all in Pine Bluff are sold, windfall or not. Judge Robinson admitted strong pockets of opposition to the presence of gambling still simmer in the community. But, he said, prosperity is a powerful unifier, one he predicts will eventually win over those sectors.
“There are still some that don’t believe that we should have done this,” Robinson said in an interview with The Daily Record. “But I do know that even though they may have felt that way, they still know that this was a great economic boost for Jefferson County. As we walk together, we will continue to build that relationship to where they will be comfortable because, guess what? It’s going to be some of their children or some of their brothers and sisters who benefit from this.
“As people benefit, so does the mind change. That’s what we’re hoping to do, and I know that it is happening as we speak,” said the Jefferson County judge.
Mayor Shirley Washington said Saracen Casino Resort was less a destination than a milestone on a larger journey of economic renewal. She said it’s not enough for any one segment of the city to do well, but that each should bridge to one another. Thus, will the success of the casino fuel the ongoing downtown rehabilitation effort which in turn begats other amenities throughout the city.
“I did my research on casinos coming into communities,” she told The Daily Record. “What I found was there are people who will go on vacation to a casino resort ... but where there’s nothing but casinos they get burned out. They want to sometimes leave the casino environment and they look to see what the other amenities in the area are, in the city or town. What does it offer?”
“So, it’s very important that we build the town, that we build downtown, that we build this area and all over the city so that when people come, they’ll want to come back,” she continued. “It’s a perfect time for us to get our shops going downtown, our restaurants going downtown and our pubs. We’re going to have a lot of events and we have to build for events. We have a convention center that has a hotel and we’re getting ready to remodel that so we can draw other conventions.”
Washington said a key cog in the overall city plan is building sufficient local workforce by attracting people back to the area, arresting a 20-year exodus from the region. That’s the next hurdle to be cleared, starting with residential development.
“The biggest hole that needs to be filled, in my opinion, is affordable housing,” said Pine Bluff’s chief economic developer. “That’s what we have to address very aggressively. We need a lot of street improvements, as well. We have people who have come to work here and some of them are living in Redfield, some of them are living in Little Rock because they can’t find the housing that they would like to have in Pine Bluff. There are people who have moved to Little Rock and other areas who are telling us, ‘If we can find the housing, we will come back to Pine Bluff. We’d rather be there.’ That’s what we’re working on right now.”
“We feel like it’s all going to work together. It’s all going to help us come through this renaissance period, making Pine Bluff a glorious town that we know it has the potential to become,” she said.
PHOTO CAPTIONS: (Photos by Dwain Hebda)
The Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff officially opened for business on Tuesday, Oct. 20. Owned by the Quapaw Nation tribe, it is the third casino licensed in Arkansas.