PINE BLUFF -- The Pine Bluff City Council decided Tuesday to reject a proposal that would have made the Saracen Casino Resort a smoke-free workplace.
Six members of the Pine Bluff council voted to reject a measure to amend city code to add smoke-free casinos.
Council Member Bruce Lockett voted not to reject the measure, and member Win Trafford abstained from the vote.
"I have never been to a nonsmoking casino," Council Member Ivan Whitfield said. "We all understand that inside the casino there will be smoking, there will he drinking and there will be gambling. It has been like that since the Western days. Some people might not like it, but that is just the way it is."
In the 2019 legislative session, the General Assembly passed Act 947, which exempts casino floors from the Arkansas Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006, the state's law to protect workers and patrons from secondhand smoke in public places.
Last week, the Public Health and Welfare Committee of the City Council -- consisting of members Donald Hatchett, Whitfield and Lockett -- debated an ordinance that would have added the casino, a $350 million gambling and resort facility currently under construction in Pine Bluff, to the city's smoke-free workplace law.
The issue received support from Katherine Donald, executive director of the Little Rock nonprofit Coalition for a Smoke Free Arkansas. But it was opposed by Saracen Casino Resort, which was represented by Carlton Saffa, a member of the project management team.
Neither spoke at the meeting Tuesday, but three people talked about the potential smoking ban during public comments.
William Gray, who spoke about losing his wife to cancer, implored the council to ban smoking in the casino.
"Don't make a political choice, but a moral one," he said.
Emma and Miller McFitte also expressed their concerns about a potentially smoke-filled casino.
"The people that don't smoke have to go through all the smoke to get into the nonsmoking room," she said. "Most people that will be there are nonsmokers."
Lockett, the sponsor of the proposed amended ordinance, asked the council to give the measure more time.
"I think we need a full debate," he said. "If not, we will short-circuit the process. I don't think it's fair to not let the public speak about this issue."
He cautioned that if members of the community think the process was too rushed, then they could file a referendum and put it on the ballot.
"I don't think an issue with this much gravity should be rushed," he said. "A referendum will be coming, and it will be drawn out to November."
The 80,000-square-foot casino, with an attached 13-floor, 300-room hotel, is expected to be an asset for the region, but Saffa previously said a smoking ban could cut into the casino's projected income.
He handed out a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2008 that showed a 20% drop in casino revenue in Illinois in the year after the state instituted a smoking ban in all of the casinos in the state.
"Immediately after the ban was announced, you can see that the bottom fell out in terms of casino receipts," he previously said. "That's obviously not good for my employer, it's not good for the state of Arkansas, which is depending on that revenue to build roads and bridges -- but all politics is local, and it's not good for the city of Pine Bluff."
Miller McFitte disagreed.
"We will make money regardless," he said. "People will learn to not smoke for those few hours to play."
Saffa had previously told the Public Health and Welfare Committee that part of the construction of the new casino includes a $2 million to $3 million state-of-the-art air filtration system that will maintain air quality inside the casino by recirculating the air every 10 minutes, filtering smoke through vents in the ceiling and pumping fresh air in through floor panels throughout the building.
He said a similar, but older, system is in place at Downstream Casino in Quapaw, Okla.
Miller McFitte, a Pine Bluff resident, scoffed at the idea of the ventilation system.
"We all know that is not true," he said.
Mayor Shirley Washington said she has been to the Downstream Casino and that because of the filtration system, she couldn't even tell whether the place was a smoke-friendly area.
The Saracen Casino Resort will be situated on 110 acres at Martha Mitchell Expressway and U.S. 63-79. The Pine Bluff City Council earlier this year approved an ordinance to annex land the casino is being built on, a fact that Washington said might be cause for clarifying the proposed amendment as quickly as possible.
"The community made a decision to bring a casino here," she said. "The casino annexation isn't completed yet. [The proposed ordinance] could affect it."
Hatchett said the proposed amendment should have been brought up before the casino made the decision to build.
"If we made this decision before Saracen committed to this community, then I would be all for talking about this," he said. "But to come up with the rules after a significant commitment doesn't seem right."
Council Member Joni Alexander agreed.
"If this had come up in the front end, then maybe we would have had more casinos apply for referral," she said. "They have bought the land, broke the ground and hired the employees. To tell them at the tail end of how to spend their money isn't right."
"That's no excuse," Lockett said. "People shouldn't have to choose if they have to work or catch cancer. We passed laws similar to this in the past, and some of the buildings were there for over 100 years."
After the discussion, the council decided to move the vote forward.
"People have choices," the mayor said. "If you don't want to experience it, don't go. I like for us to move forward."
State Desk on 09/04/2019
Print Headline: Pine Bluff rejects proposal on smoke-free casino