A year ago, officials and dignitaries wearing masks walked the gaming area of the Saracen Casino Resort as the doors to the full-size casino opened for the first time.
Now, a year later, the two elected officials who had to come together and agree to the deal with the Quapaw Nation before a casino could take place – Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson – are satisfied with the turn of events. .
“The Saracen Casino has been an exceptional addition to Pine Bluff,” Washington said. “This is a unique experience in Arkansas. Visitors love the games, dining, and exceptional dining experiences. In fact, Saracen’s Red Oak Steakhouse is one of 38 restaurants nationwide and the only one in Arkansas to be allowed to serve Kobe beef, one of the rarest and most delicious meats in the world. “
Robinson said: “Economically it has been of great benefit to the city and the county. They have created jobs and given people a reason to come and visit and have something to do. It has been great for the citizens. . “
Casino officials have said during the year that they are also happy with their investment in Pine Bluff. The facility was opened in the midst of a pandemic so the number of gambling was expected to decline, but overall they say the profits have exceeded their expectations.
That sentiment was reinforced earlier this month when two rating agencies improved the casino’s credit rating on the same day.
The agencies pointed to a faster-than-expected ramp-up of the operation and strong cash flow and earnings as reasons to improve ratings.
Carlton Saffa, the casino’s market manager, said the two agencies amounted to “objecting to third parties” in their comments on the overall health and outlook of the Saracen Casino Resort.
Quapaw Nation Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd said, “We are delighted that two highly respected credit rating agencies such as Moody’s and S&P saw the need to improve our ratings on the same day. This rating improvement sends a strong message that our Saracen gaming operation is performing well and there is confidence in our ability to service the debt. “
Numbers are a big part of what constitutes a casino’s success. How much is wagered? How much is paid? (The difference, as a percentage, is called the withholding.) And then there are the monthly numbers that Washington and Robinson are very interested in – the taxes paid by the casino.
The grand casino opened on October 20, 2020 and the latest financial report of its operation, distributed by the State Racing Commission, goes through September, so the overall numbers are for just under a year. . But for those 10 months and 12 days, the casino generated almost $ 18 million in taxes. This number represents 13% of the casino’s profits from its slots, table games and sports betting operations.
More than half of that $ 18 million – 55% – goes to the state; 17.5% support running scholarships; 19.5% go to Pine Bluff; and 8% go to Jefferson County.
In dollars, that’s about $ 3.5 million for Pine Bluff and about $ 1.4 million for Jefferson County.
Before the big casino opened, there was the annex, a smaller venue that opened in September 2019 across the street. From then until the world’s largest casino opened last year, the Annex paid some $ 5 million in taxes, contributing $ 975,000 to Pine Bluff’s coffers and $ 400,000 to those of Jefferson County. . The annex remained open, its numbers are now part of the general ledger of the casino.
From a public perspective, the casino has given visitors and locals a place to be entertained at a time when Pine Bluff has very little to no tourist attractions. Casino officials have noted that many of their reservations for the high-end Red Oak Steakhouse come from out of town guests, meaning people are ready to drive from Little Rock and beyond to get here.
This aspect is not lost on Mayor Washington.
“As a destination, it attracts tourists from all over the country, especially from central Arkansas,” she said. “They come because of these unique, high-quality, world-class experiences. This activity has resulted in significant growth in city revenues, which will be invested in the services and projects needed to improve Pine Bluff.
The facility has also been a boon to the local job market, with many people from Pine Bluff and Jefferson County finding work there. It’s by design, with casino officials saying they want the casino to be a place where visitors from outside the region come to play and the locals can find work.
Washington said, “In addition, nearly 1,000 new jobs have been created, creating new economic opportunities for countless people.”
Saffa confirmed this figure, saying the casino employs between 900 and 1,000 people and two-thirds of them live in Jefferson County. Now that the big casino has been in business for a year, Saffa said, all employees have received general increases of 5%, adding that the casino had also just launched a tuition reimbursement program for employees who wish to go. in a business school. or college.
Saracen is also proud to give back to the community. For the second year in a row, Saracen donated 400 turkeys to Neighbor to Neighbor, Pine Bluff’s pantry, and casino officials repeatedly came to the aid of small towns in the area with trucks full of water in bottle when city water systems were compromised.
“It’s standard practice for us,” Saffa said. “We are trying to fill in the gaps where we can.”
In April, the casino made headlines when it donated $ 100,000 to support the UAPB Student Athlete Center. The center, as its name suggests, helps student-athletes in their academic progress.
“Our commitment is to be a true partner in this community,” said Saffa upon announcing the giveaway, “Our desire is to do our part to ensure that we add to the growth of this region. UAPB has a proud tradition of educating students and expanding opportunities, and we intend to be a part of that continued success. ”
“We donate in a lot of places,” said Saffa, when asked about the casino’s outreach efforts. “Sometimes it’s something we would like our name to be associated with, and sometimes it’s just a worthy cause, a charitable donation, and the purpose of donating to charity is to do just that.”
Saffa then asked himself a question to which he answered.
“Do the people of Pine Bluff think we are good community partners? ” he said. “I hope the answer is yes.”
As part of the deal with the city and county, the casino funded the construction of two structures for the city, which the mayor touts as one of the main benefits of having the casino.
“Saracen has been a strong community partner,” she said. “Thanks to their support, we have built a new fire station, a police station and the first roundabout in our history along Highway 79. Looking ahead, we are delighted with the construction of the new hotel , which will be adjacent to this will attract even more tourists to Pine Bluff, including guests for conferences, conventions and family reunions.
County Judge Robinson also mentioned the hotel, although he expressed dismay that one has yet to be built.
“I am a little disappointed that they are not even further along in integrating a hotel and convention center,” said Robinson. “These are the things members of the public look forward to – being able to stay there and spend the night there.”
Casino officials said months ago that with the unknowns associated with covid, now was not a good time to proceed with a hotel. Then, again because of covid, there was the well-documented spike in the price of raw materials, mainly wood and steel, which would be widely used in any new construction.
But with more people vaccinated now and the latest wave of covid declines, Saracen is once again talking about the 13-story, more than 300-room hotel project, which is expected to cost $ 100 million. Also on the table is the construction of an event center and parking lot.
The total cost, Saffa said, is “several hundred million dollars.” Casino officials were looking for options to borrow money for the projects, Saffa said, but improving the casino’s credit rating has had its ups and downs. The improvement has placed the casino in a better position with potential bankers and will allow it to earn a better interest rate. The downside, Saffa said, is that the work that has already been done to find appropriate funding will have to be redone.
“The determination of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s has given us a better loan deal,” said Saffa. “We won’t regret having the best deal we can find.”
The paperwork and fees for such due diligence work, he said, however cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it doesn’t go fast. You can’t reconfigure this in days or weeks, but rather in months or quarters “.
Saffa has said, however, that he understands the desire to build the hotel.
“I appreciate it when you ask about the hotel,” he said. “I don’t take this as an affront. I think it’s more of a compliment because people care about it.”
Saffa said casino and Quapaw Nation officials are working daily to finish the design of the new projects and “are working as fast as humanly possible.”
And to allay fears, Saffa said the projects will definitely be built.
“Any rumor that there will be no hotel is categorically false,” he said.
And when the hotel is built, there will be another 200 jobs to fill, he said.
Washington once again praised Saracen for his first year in business.
“Ultimately, we look forward to continuing our collaboration as we develop our partnership with Saracen Casino,” she said. “It has been a wonderful year, and we are delighted with those to come.
Saffa also understands the benefit of being visible when it comes to the political end of the spectrum, having worked as an assistant at one point for Governor Asa Hutchinson. Last week, Saracen sponsored a flight from the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce to Washington, DC to meet with the state delegation.
“We employ almost a thousand Arkansans,” Saffa said. “And since the Quapaw were the first Arkansans, we wanted to meet our peers in business and our delegation that represents the homeland.”
And as the Saracen Casino Resort enters its second year of operation here, it should be noted that another casino has yet to start. The other approved casino, which will be located in Pope County, is still blocked in court.