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story.lead_photo.caption Edward Fontenette of Pine Bluff racks up more than $800 in winnings on one of the slot machines on opening night of the Saracen Casino Annex, a 15,000-square-foot gambling annex stocked with 300 slot machines across the highway from the future Saracen Casino Resort. “I’m doing real well tonight,” Fontenette laughed. “This is a very nice place.” ( Dale Ellis)

PINE BLUFF -- In a surprise "soft" opening Friday, Saracen Casino Annex opened for business at 6 p.m., four days ahead of a planned grand opening scheduled for Tuesday morning.

"This is our surprise for the community," said Carlton Saffa , spokesman for Saracen Casino Resort. "This is our 100-day casino. We started on it 100 days ago and here we are, open for business."

Saffa said there are still some smaller special events that will be held over the weekend at the 15,000-square-foot annex, which is connected to the Saracen Q Store, formerly the site of Southern Edge Truck Stop, in advance of an official grand opening scheduled for Tuesday.

With a full service bar and 300 slot machines, Saffa said the facility is a small preview of what is still to come with the 80,000-square-foot casino with attached 13-floor, 300-room hotel across the street scheduled for completion by the end of next year. Although the need for some finishing touches around the fuel islands and in the parking lot were apparent, the gambling floor, bar, and Q Store, were largely completed.

"This building was started 97 days ago, and our racing license is just over 100 days old," Saffa said. "So we jokingly refer to this as our 100-day casino."

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQV6GL2cKEQ]

Saffa said the event Friday night was originally intended to be a true soft opening, by invitation only, but he said interest was running so high that the plan was quickly amended.

"We made a decision today we would give a sneak peak to the city," he said. "We had intended for tonight to be a soft opening to folks we traded with, that we'd done business with. But then we decided, you know what, folks are so excited so let's let them all in."

Saffa said word was quickly put out on social media and by 6 p.m., the opening time, the parking lot was full and people were lined up through the doors waiting to get in.

One of the early attendees, Edward Fontenette of Pine Bluff, sat at a slot machine on which he had racked up over $800 in winnings in less than an hour.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at arkansasonline.com/casinos]

"This is a really nice place," Fontenette said. "It's not too crowded; it's really nice."

Saffa said the annex and Q Store currently employ 236 people and, between it and the main resort, about 400 construction jobs have been created.

"Once we get the footings done and the steel starts coming in, we'll expand to somewhere around 1,000 construction jobs pretty quickly," he said. "And once the whole project is completed, we'll be providing over 1,100 permanent jobs right here in Jefferson County."

One of the people working now, Vincent Bullard of Pine Bluff, said before he landed his job performing maintenance with Saracen, he had lived mostly hand-to-mouth, working a series of menial jobs.

"We've got good benefits on this job," Bullard said. "Good benefits, good pay, everything. I'm loving it."

State Desk on 09/28/2019

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