OPINION | EDITORIAL: Cranes in ‘23

Betting on a finished product

There will be a hotel at Saracen Casino--ahem--Resort in Pine Bluff. The hotel being essential to the "resort" part of the equation, a reporter in Pine Bluff asked the face of Saracen about it. More than three years on since Saracen's casino annex was opened, the hotel remains a vision on paper.

Carlton Saffa, Saracen's chief marketer, promises the project will go vertical in 2023. We'll see cranes on the horizon soon enough, apparently. Mr. Saffa conceded that folks may be rolling their eyes at this point, construction delays and "false starts" the usual culprits.

We get it. Things happen, especially to projects that must rely on so many moving parts. And especially when a pandemic changes rules on a dime.

But Mr. Saffa tells The Pine Bluff Commercial that the delays gave Saracen officials the chance to recast their vision. Saracen's hotel, which will sit atop the three-year-old casino, will be bigger than planned. And half of its 320 rooms will be suites.

"If people like the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, they're going to love the Saracen Hotel," he said.

Last we checked, people like the Capital Hotel. But that's quite a bar to set. Mr. Saffa insists the Saracen hotel will be "spec'ed out to be the nicest hotel in the state."

We remember Oaklawn officials saying much the same thing about their hotel. The more good hotels the better, we suppose. The house--at Saracen, at Oaklawn, at Southland--isn't going to pay for itself, after all.

The finished product at Saracen, expected in 2025, will encompass around 400,000 square feet and include an expanded event center. But first, the original foundation must be torn up and a new one placed.

That'll mean an extra $4 million or $5 million. But ya gotta spend money to make money, the saying goes. Doubtless the Quapaw Nation can afford it. They're good at building and running casino resorts. And despite the obstacles--direct and otherwise--resulting from covid, revenues have been steady in Pine Bluff.

Helping matters for Saracen has been the popularity of its in-house sports book and online betting service. Mr. Saffa says the Saracen book accounts for about two-thirds of all online bets in Arkansas.

Local officials like to hear things like that. So far, Saracen has paid out $8.8 million to the city of Pine Bluff and $3.6 million to Jefferson County in tax proceeds, and that's not counting property and sales tax. On average, monthly tax contributions from the project push $2 million per month. Like gambling or not, the folks in Jefferson County get an infusion of cash.

Thus far, casino projects like those run by the Quapaws have avoided the Tunica effect. Arkansans have flocked to their in-state casinos. People are making money--mostly the house. (Funny how that works.)

Meanwhile, Oaklawn's luxurious hotel has been up and running for a couple of years in Hot Springs, complementing its thoroughbred track and casino. And the hotel being finished out at Southland's casino in West Memphis indeed is touching the sky.

Mr. Saffa promises Saracen won't be far behind. That we'll see cranes in '23. We won't bet against him.

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