"You will see steel and cranes this year," said Carlton Saffa, chief market officer for Saracen Casino. "This year we will go vertical."
That was Saffa back in early 2022, and he feels pretty bad about over-promising and under-delivering on the construction of a much-anticipated hotel and event center. In 2022, there were no cranes and nothing went vertical.
"I know people are just rolling their eyes at this point," Saffa said when asked how the development was going. "We've had so many false starts. I don't even like to talk about it."
The problem, Saffa said, has been in the details, some small and some large. There are still 320-something rooms planned, but half of them are now going to be suites.
"If people like the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, they're going to love the Saracen Hotel," Saffa said. "This is being spec'd out to be the nicest hotel in the state. But we're still not quite through with the details of the furnishings and finishings. You don't build it as you go. Every detail has to be settled on."
Because the project is bigger than initially anticipated, the original foundation and pad for it has to be changed. That means tearing up or adding to the concrete that's already there.
"I've had weekly meetings with architects to get the hotel expanded and the event center expanded to 1,600 seats," Saffa said.
That work-before-the-work part should start in the next couple of months, Saffa said, and will cost between $4 million and $5 million.
To get ready for the expansion itself, "back of house" offices that have been in what will become work areas will have to be moved, Saffa said.
And once the new foundation footprint is in place, he said, construction on the hotel and event center will start -- really.
"Once that's finished, you will see cranes in the air," Saffa said. "Undoubtedly, this is the year fully you will see cranes in the air."
The entire development is some 400,000 square feet, Saffa said, adding that construction could take two years.
Saffa said that since the casino opened with the annex in September 2019 and the main casino about a year later, few months have gone by without some significant headwinds.
"The pandemic, $4 and $5 a gallon gas, inflation, supply chain problems, you name it, we've been up against a lot," he said.
But the casino has thrived, he said. Two credit rating agencies upgraded Saracen's rating in 2021 allowing the casino to get credit at far better interest rates than it had been offered, but even that good news was offset by the fact that all of the loans that were being organized for the expansion had to be resubmitted.
On the gambling side of the house, revenues have been consistent, with total taxes paid by the casino pushing $2 million a month.
Saffa said some of the casino's slots are connected to those in Las Vegas, giving the payouts a bigger potential. But what he said he's most pleased about is how the online betting portal is doing.
"Two out of three bets placed online in Arkansas are placed with us," Saffa said. "We've got 64% of the market."
Saffa said Saracen wasn't the first to get to the market with its online betting platform, but he feels the wait was worthwhile.
"We waited until the payment processing piece was what we wanted it to be," he said. "Payment processing is always a hurdle, and we wanted to make sure it was customer friendly. Fifty-eight days later, it seems we were right. We have had $15 million in wagering to Oaklawn's $2 million to Southland's $6 million."
Some of that popularity has to do with an aggressive marketing campaign that encourages online gamblers to "Bet Saracen."
"We've got billboards outside the Northwest Arkansas airport, and ads featuring well-known individuals. We're not afraid to put our name out there."
As for setting odds, sometimes Saracen uses those set by Vegas, but when there are no odds for a matchup that has statewide interest, Saracen will still take bets.
"We create our own odds," he said. "The Battle of the Ravine in Arkadelphia [between Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist], we were the only ones to lay odds on it. It's a lot of fun. Football, baseball, golf, the World Cup, it's not hard to find the Saracen name. I'm so proud. Saracen is far and away Arkansas' favorite sports book."
And all of that gambling revenue comes back to Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, Saffa said, no matter where the person is when they place their online bets.
In the short time since online gambling has been possible through Saracen, taxes paid from it alone have totaled $186,000 to the city and $76,000 to the county.
In the 40 months or so that Saracen has been in existence, Saffa said, the casino has contributed $8.8 million to the city of Pine Bluff and $3.6 million to Jefferson County. Those figures don't include other taxes the casino pays such as property and sales taxes.