Saracen Casino Resort's Carlton Saffa on Thursday praised Pine Bluff's location, infrastructure, businesses and institutions but said it was the city's leaders that have been responsible for many of its success stories.
"This is a dream team of public servants," Saffa said. "In it for the right reasons because they love this town and will fight for it."
Saffa made the comments at the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce's Business Expo breakfast where 440 attendees packed the banquet room of the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
The theme of this year's expo was "Bet on the Bluff," a fitting theme for Saffa, who is the chief marketing officer for the casino.
Saffa talked of the casino's financial commitment to Pine Bluff, saying the Quapaw Nation, owner of the casino, had already invested $300 million in its operation and was going to spend another $220 million on a hotel.
"'Bet on Pine Bluff,' I like that," Saffa said. "Then again, 'Bet in Pine Bluff' has a nice ring to it, too."
Saffa noted Pine Bluff's proximity to Little Rock, "the financial, medical and governmental hub of our state," and said Pine Bluff has a culture and an identity.
"I'm talking Bukka White, Bobby Rush, Mars Andrew Hill and Henri Linton," he said. "And when Paul Greenberg won his Pulitzer Prize, it wasn't in the statewide paper, it was here for his work at the Pine Bluff Commercial."
Saffa took a good-natured jab at Russellville, a town that has been trying to become a "casino town."
"What's the identity there?" he asked. "A nuclear plant next to a lake? That's the setting of 'The Simpsons,' not an identity."
Saffa checked off many of the Pine Bluff's bigger institutions and businesses, naming Southeast Arkansas College as the state's best community college and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as the heart of "the Pine Bluff diaspora."
"Walk down the street in Chicago with a Golden Lions hat on," Saffa said. "See if you get stopped or fist-bumped or maybe hugged. I speak from experience. Pine Bluff is bigger than its population and bigger than its footprint. Bet on it."
Sissy's Log Cabin, Trotter Ford and Simmons Bank all got a shout out from Saffa as being examples of Pine Bluff entities that have now become influential around the state and beyond.
"And you can't think of Simmons without thinking of Mr. Tommy May, himself a Pine Bluff treasure," Saffa said.
May was CEO of the bank for many years and now, in semi-retirement, is head of the Simmons Foundation and director of Go Forward Pine Bluff, which also got a mention as being an example of the city creating its own destiny.
As for other leaders, Saffa said both Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson were tough and strong in their respective jobs.
Washington, he said, was at the casino on New Year's Eve, not concerned about ringing in the new year but hopeful that the city's murder numbers would not be added to during the night.
"That's a leader," Saffa said. "She's as good as it gets."
"And don't get me started on Judge Robinson," Saffa said. "If ever there was a man I want in the foxhole with me, it's him."
Saffa said that the establishment of Saracen Casino in Pine Bluff required the approval of the county judge, which Robinson gave.
"Saracen is the house that Gerald built," Saffa said. "Without Judge Robinson, there would be no Saracen."
Saffa wrapped up by asking attendees if they thought the city was on the right or wrong track, both a decade ago and now. Years ago, he said, the answer more times than not was that the wrong track was being taken.
"How about today?" he asked. "Right track or wrong track? The answer is obvious to me. And if for some reason you think we're not on the right track, well, do something about it."
That "something," Saffa said, would be to take a risk on the city, like Sissy Jones did to start her fledgling jewelry store and like Dr. John Franklin Simmons did 125 years ago when, with $3,000, he started the bank – and like the Quapaw Nation has done in investing a half-billion dollars in the city.
"And if none of that is something you're up for, well, bet on those of us who are working and trying," Saffa said. "Bet on us. Bet on Pine Bluff. We're on the right track, and I feel a jackpot coming for our community."
Following Saffa's speech, which many stood and applauded, the chamber recognized several people and institutions being honored.
Betty Bradshaw was named as Red Coat member of the year. Business Person of the Year was Shannon Morgan with the Simmons Foundation. Jefferson Regional Medical Center was named Nonprofit Organization of the Year. And Sha'Nae Reed, of Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel, was named Young Professional of the Year.
Shortly after the breakfast ended, the doors opened to the expo itself, held on the arena floor of the Convention Center, where hundreds of attendees visited with almost a hundred exhibitors.
The most informative booth award went to Exodus Life, and the most creative booth award went to UAPB.
Jennifer Kline, chamber director and event organizer, said she felt as if the breakfast and expo had been a big success.
"The Bet on the Bluff theme was perfect for our community," Kline said. "Everyone lives here and works here and wants our city and community to be the best it can be. I'm not sure how we'll top this next year. We'll have to get creative."