Three major events in this century changed the course of history for West Memphis: a vote by the Arkansas Legislature in 2005, a big flood along the Mississippi River in 2011, and a statewide vote of the people in 2018.
In 2005, what was known at the time as Southland Greyhound Park was on the verge of closing when the Arkansas Legislature voted to allow what it called "games of skill" at Southland and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. Southland's owner, Delaware North, responded by spending $40 million on a facility to house its new electronic games along with an events center and restaurants.
In 2011, a flood forced casinos at nearby Tunica, Miss., to close for weeks. Memphis residents began crossing the bridges to Southland rather than going to Tunica. Business has been booming ever since. In 2015, Delaware North invested another $38 million for an expansion of the gaming area and yet another restaurant.
In November 2018, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow four full-fledged casinos across the state. Southland is one of the four locations. That's when Delaware North went to work on the current $250 million expansion that will include a 20-story, 300-room luxury hotel and a 113,000-square-foot casino.
That project sparked a boom in West Memphis that's already leading to more restaurants, hotels and other businesses. It has created a sense of optimism on the part of city leaders and voters alike. The optimism is unlike anything you'll find elsewhere in the Arkansas Delta. These leaders expect the current hotel and casino expansion to be so successful that additional expansions will soon follow.
Indeed, David Wolf, Southland's president and general manager since 2016, hinted that more might be on the way.
"Arkansas and West Memphis are very business-friendly and understand the benefits of us growing and thereby increasing employment and taxes," he recently told the Memphis Business Journal. "As they say in the real estate business, location, location, location. We're closest to the greater Memphis metropolitan area. ... We'll have the largest and newest slot machines and table games in the market. And we'll have the newest quality restaurants and a state-of-the-art hotel complete with suites."
Wolf is promising customers a resort like they would find in Las Vegas.
"It is putting us on a level playing field," he said. "I'm fairly confident our annual growth will be in the double digits over the next couple of years."
The high-rise hotel is expected to draw not just visitors to the casino but thousands of Memphis music, civil rights and barbecue tourists who would otherwise stay across the river. Most of the more than 3 million customers who visit Southland each year now come from the Memphis area. State tourism officials think the hotel will begin bringing in visitors from states such as Missouri, Kentucky and Alabama.
"We've developed a loyal customer base and can't wait to see more people discover Southland in the coming years and make it an overnight and weekend tourism destination," Wolf said.
The new casino complex will have 2,400 gaming machines, 60 live table games and a covered parking garage that will hold 1,250 vehicles. The expansion is being built by Roy Anderson Corp. of Gulfport, Miss., which has experience constructing casinos along the Gulf Coast. The expansion will create an additional 400 jobs and push Southland's total employment above 1,200.
Last month, I sat down with Mayor Marco McClendon and other officials at West Memphis City Hall. They couldn't wait to begin listing the numerous things that are happening across this city of 25,000 residents.
• Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014. County voters approved a special sales tax in 2016 to pay for a new medical center. Baptist Memorial Health Care of Memphis, which also operates a medical center at Jonesboro, has a 10-year lease on the hospital with a 10-year renewal option. What's now known as Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden County is a 65,000-square-foot facility with 115 employees, built at a cost of $43 million. Visible from Interstate 40, it's near the modern visitors' welcome center constructed several years ago by the state of Arkansas.
• Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated is investing more than $33 million on a 200,000-square-foot expansion of its existing production facility on Rainer Road. The expansion is expected to create another 65 jobs.
• Online car dealer Carvana is spending more than $40 million on an inspection and distribution center for the cars it sells. The 217-acre facility will employ 450 people.
• Ground was broken last August on a 14,400-square-foot public library. It's the first civic structure to be constructed in West Memphis since 1974 and will be located along Broadway Avenue. The cost is $4.1 million.
• The West Memphis School District is spending $120 million on facility improvements on 10 campuses, including the construction of new junior high schools.
• The city will spend $3 million on a fire station on one end of Broadway and spend $4 million on a fire station/police substation on the other end of Broadway.
• In December, voters earmarked almost $12 million for improvements to five city parks. At Tilden Rogers Park, baseball fields, softball fields and volleyball courts will be improved or added in hopes of attracting youth tournaments. The money is coming from additional tax revenue from Southland.
"They come here, they stay here, they eat here, they buy here," McClendon said of those who attend sports tournaments. "It's going to be great for West Memphis."
The public projects along Broadway are part of an effort to clean up the street and attract private capital to what is in essence the city's Main Street. Broadway (which is also U.S. 70) once was the main route from Little Rock to Memphis and was packed with businesses, some of which stayed open 24 hours a day.
After joining the U.S. Army, Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast at the Coffee Cup on East Broadway on his way west to Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith. The Coffee Cup was known throughout the region for its country ham, fried chicken and steaks. The building housing the restaurant was demolished in 1965.
Just off Broadway on South Eighth Street was a neighborhood known as Little Chicago due to its many black-owned clubs, restaurants and hotels. The street's heyday was from the 1930s until the early 1960s.
"On weekends, it was so crowded that you couldn't drive down the first few blocks of South Eighth," writes Rachel Patton of Preserve Arkansas. "Cars also were parked along East Broadway for several blocks in either direction. There was a 9 p.m. curfew in Memphis during part of this time, so musicians would come to Arkansas to play late at night. The West Memphis police chief was paid to look the other way. There were often illegal activities going on in the beer joints like gambling and prostitution. The bagmen collected fees to pay off city officials."
Now it's hoped that legal gambling at Southland will lead to a new era of music venues and restaurants on Broadway, whose decline began with the coming of the interstates.
"Construction on Interstate 40 and Interstate 55 began in 1950, and a small section from the Mississippi River levee to Missouri Street opened in June 1951," Patton writes. "By December 1963, Interstate 55 was open all the way north to Blytheville. As motorists began using the new interstate highways, commercial and residential development shifted toward the interstates. Businesses along Broadway suffered as big-box retailers constructed stores several blocks to the north."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 02/09/2020