Carlton Saffa sounds like a carpet salesman as he discusses the intricacies of Ulster carpets.
Saffa, the Quapaw Nation's chief market officer for Saracen Casino Resort at Pine Bluff, talks about how Ulster is a family-owned company in the United Kingdom with more than 70 years of experience. He also notes that the company has design studios on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
"This is the same carpet that's used at the Bellagio in Las Vegas," he says as we walk the floor of the Pine Bluff casino on a busy Friday afternoon. "Who would have thought I would become obsessed with casino carpets?"
I'm not surprised. Saffa, the Quapaw Nation's first full-time employee at Pine Bluff, has been obsessed with details since he worked for Gov. Asa Hutchinson. I accompanied Saffa to Oklahoma in the fall of 2019 to see Downstream Casino Resort, a Quapaw development. On that trip, he pointed out things he would like to see replicated at Pine Bluff. I frankly had my doubts. My mind had a hard time picturing Las Vegas-style luxury in Jefferson County.
But seeing is believing. And the numbers speak for themselves as the pandemic winds down. In short, the casino appears to be exceeding expectations.
In November 2018, Arkansans approved new casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties along with the expansion of existing gambling operations at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis. The Quapaw contributed $3.65 million to the successful 2018 campaign.
Jefferson County and Pine Bluff government officials were quick to approve the Quapaw plan. It's a different story from the legal wrangling that continues in Pope County.
The Quapaw Nation was the first to apply for a license to build a casino under the new law. Saracen is named for a Quapaw chief who was buried in Pine Bluff in the 1830s. Land was purchased at the intersection of U.S. 63/79 and the Martha Mitchell Expressway. The Southern Edge Truck Stop adjacent to that site also was purchased.
By May 1, 2019, Quapaw officials had delivered an application and a $250,000 check to the Arkansas Racing Commission. It was the first day to apply for licenses. By the next month, the commission had unanimously approved the Quapaw application. Work began almost overnight on the $320 million project.
By the end of September 2019, an annex with 300 electronic games had opened at the former truck stop. The annex, which is adjacent to a Quapaw-run convenience store, was packed with customers from the start.
Construction of the main casino continued throughout the pandemic. On Oct. 20, 2020, the main casino opened. The 80,000-square-foot gaming floor features almost 2,000 electronic games and 50 table games.
It was only in recent months--as people got vaccinated and felt safer going out--that the casino truly began to flex its muscles. Total betting in March was more than $160 million. The next best month had been January at $116 million.
"We're very, very happy with where we are," Saffa told The Pine Bluff Commercial following the release of March numbers. "April is shaping up to be an equally strong month."
He was right. In March, the casino paid $1,820,575 in taxes. In April, that number was up to $2,071,373. Saracen pays 55 percent of taxes to the state, 17.5 percent to support racing purses, 19.5 percent to the city of Pine Bluff and 8 percent to Jefferson County. By the end of April, the casino had paid $13.9 million in gambling taxes since beginning operations.
"We're now seeing that the amendment approved by voters in 2018 was good for Arkansas and was good for cities and counties where gambling is now allowed," Saffa says.
As part of what's termed Phase 2 of the Saracen project, a hotel, spa, conference center, entertainment venue and museum will be built. Saffa says he's asked on a daily basis about Phase 2. He bristles at rumors that it won't happen.
Saffa shows me the foundation that has already been built for the hotel. Phase 2 has been slowed by the pandemic, high steel prices and current work-force concerns.
"We're going to build this as fast as we can, but we're going to be prudent about it," Saffa had earlier told The Commercial. "This is working. We're ramping up our business little by little. Every month, our numbers are getting better and better. We're dumping millions of dollars in tax revenue into the economy. ... There's zero hesitancy on the part of Saracen management in building a hotel."
I have no doubt that state associations will add Pine Bluff to the rotation for annual meetings once the hotel and conference center are completed. Meeting organizers long have wanted to include southeast Arkansas in their rotations, but there haven't been enough suitable hotel rooms and entertainment options in the region.
Saffa points out that he still has $29 million to spend in Phase 1. Dining options are being tweaked in response to customer demand. The poker room is being expanded. In addition to being an expert on carpets, Saffa can talk about art as he buys additional pieces for the casino.
Over dinner at the Red Oak Steakhouse, the casino's fine-dining venue, he notes: "There's a lot more art going in here. We need to warm this room up a little."
Saracen already features a 48-by-12-foot mural by Pine Bluff artist Henri Linton, the Alabama native who joined the faculty of what's now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1969. Linton's works are noted for their examination of the Arkansas Delta.
And that Ulster carpet? It's based on a satellite image of the Delta, of course.
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.