The good news keeps coming in West Memphis. Last week, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that will allow four full-fledged casinos across the state. One of those casinos will be at Southland Gaming & Racing. Officials at Delaware North, Southland's parent company, say they will build a $200 million hotel and convention center in West Memphis. A Delaware North official called it "a priority of the company to get it up and going."
West Memphis once had the reputation of being the place where residents of Memphis came to play. At a time when the Bluff City had a curfew, dozens of bars, juke joints and technically illegal but wide-open gambling establishments flourished 24 hours a day on the Arkansas side of the river. Greyhound racing began in Crittenden County in 1935. Southland has been at the same location since 1956. The dogs first raced at the Riverside Kennel Club, which was at the Arkansas end of the bridge crossing the Mississippi River. When Southland was established, it was the only legal gambling venue in the Mid-South. Delaware North bought the track in the 1970s.
"At its high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country," Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland. All that changed in 1992."
That's when casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi.
"Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500," Hendricks writes. "Its annual revenues dropped from $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs."
Southland was on the verge of closing when the Arkansas Legislature voted in 2005 to allow what it called "games of skill" at Southland and at Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred horse track at Hot Springs. Thanks to those electronic games, a $40 million facility was being built at the dog track by late 2006. It included a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat event center, and additional restaurants.
The next big thing to happen at Southland was the Mississippi River flood of 2011. It caused the Tunica casinos to close for weeks. Memphis residents began crossing the bridge to Southland instead, and business has been booming ever since. Additional renovations followed. Delaware North has now invested more than $100 million since 2006. There are 765 employees. Southland soon will be able to add dealers, big-name entertainment, a sports book, a luxury hotel, additional restaurants and more to the mix. That should take the employment level past 1,000. Regardless of what one thinks about casino gambling, it seems destined to help the West Memphis economy.
The other good news at West Memphis concerns health care. Construction is nearing completion on Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden County. The $43 million facility is to open Dec. 3 with 115 employees. West Memphis has been without a hospital since Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014. The new hospital will have 65,000 square feet of patient rooms, operating suites and more. Crittenden County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax in 2016 to pay for the facility. Baptist Memorial Health Care, which also operates a medical center at Jonesboro, has a 10-year lease with a 10-year renewal option.
West Memphis long has lived in the shadow of Memphis. The first river bridge opened in May 1892. The Harahan Bridge opened in 1916 as a toll bridge. Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was on the banks of the river. The second one developed near the intersection of three railroad lines that served the timber industry. Michigan native George Kendal and William Johnson of Memphis platted the second West Memphis in 1912. The area consisted of thick canebrakes and swamps. One surveyor reported seeing a black bear at what's now the corner of Eighth and Broadway.
"Before the Harahan Bridge was built, most vehicles had to ferry across the Mississippi River," Charlotte Wicks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The Harahan Bridge was damaged by fire in 1928, and it reopened after 18 months of repairs. In 1927, West Memphis was incorporated. The first mayor was Zach T. Bragg, who established one of the first logging mills in the region. ... In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis. Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Cafe, referred to as Miss Annie's Place on South 16th Street, was where B.B. King began his public entertaining. The Coffee Cup, which was at 204 E. Broadway St. in the 1950s, was where Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast after being inducted into the U.S. Army. Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn."
Before the construction of Interstate 40, Broadway (which doubled as U.S. 70) had an abundance of tourist courts, hotels and restaurants. Thanks to voters statewide, West Memphis again appears primed to be the place where the Mid-South comes to play.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 11/17/2018
Print Headline: REX NELSON: West Memphis good times