JEFFERSON COUNTY, Ark. — Arkansas voters approved Issue 4 on Nov. 6, allowing casinos to operate in four Arkansas counties, including two (Pope and Jefferson counties) where gaming became legal for the first time.
While it remains an open question as to whether a casino will come to Pope County, Jefferson County is moving full-steam ahead.
Lance Turner of Arkansas Business reports that local boosters are cheering hundreds of new jobs and a chance to reset the county's ailing economy.
Issue 4 is now known as Amendment 100 and in Jefferson County, the new law has opened the doors to the Quapaw tribe's $350 million Saracen Casino Resort.
Caleb McMahon, the director of economic development for Jefferson County said he couldn't be happier.
He said the new casino is the equivalent of 1,000 new jobs falling from the sky. That'll be enough to put the casino among the county's top five employers — a list the includes Jefferson Regional Medical Center, Tyson Foods and the state Department of Correction.
The casino would be a shot in the arm to a county that's seen population declines and economic stagnation.
Ryan Watley is CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a nonprofit backed by community and city leaders aiming to revitalize Pine Bluff and the surrounding area. He said the casino fits perfectly with Go Forward's goal of expanding the area's tax base.
Under the amendment, Saracen would pay taxes that go to the state, the Racing Commission and purses for live racing at Oaklawn and Southland.
The remaining dollars are split between Pine Bluff, 19.5 percent, and Jefferson County, 8 percent.
While casino officials wait for the state Racing Commission to approve rules for the new casino gaming structure by March 14, work is already underway on the Saracen project.
That includes geotechnical drilling at the casino's site, the south-east corner of the Martha Mitchell Expressway and U.S. 63-79 — east of The Pines Mall.
John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Indians, thinks the 70,000-to 80,000-SF casino portion of the development can be open before the end of the year.
The 350-room hotel, conference space, entertainment venue, spa and restaurants would follow in 2020. The project will incorporate museums devoted to the history of the blues, Native Americans and African-Americans in the Jefferson County area.
Suffolk Construction of Dallas and Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway are working together to manage construction.
Jefferson County voters were enthusiastic in their support of the casino amendment, posting a 29-point margin in favor, bigger than the 8.2-point margin of the statewide vote.
Still, there are signs that support for gambling remains a political hot potato.
While Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson signed letters of support for the casino in Pine Bluff — neither wanted to talk about the project.
Both declined to comment for this story.