Vegas casino gambling gets underway in Arkansas this month after Arkansas voters approved a referendum in November for a constitutional amendment that would allow casinos to operate in the state.
Two Arkansas casinos open for play this month, fewer than five months after state voters approved Issue 4, a constitutional amendment to legalize commercial gambling. The Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment of 2018 authorized two new casino venues, one each in Jefferson and Polk counties, and authorized the Southland and Oaklawn racetrack “racinos” to transition into full-fledged commercial gambling venues which will be equipped with table games and slot machines.
Hot Springs, located in Oaklawn, and Southland of West Memphis have been preparing for the April 2019 opening ever since the results of the referendum became known. Table games and slot machines are now available at Southland where the West Memphis horse racetrack has added 40 live dealer table games and approximately 2,000 traditional slot machines.
Oaklawn is adopting a wait-and-see attitude regarding slots play but the site has added eight table games to its 1,300 electronic games lobby.
Both Oaklawn and Southland are preparing to extensively renovate and expand their locations as they expect that the new offerings will bring a surge in traffic. In West Memphis, Southland plans to build a $250 million integrated resort that will include a 20-story hotel with 300 guestrooms. The building will change the city’s skyline and will compete with nearby Memphis Tennessee’s 32-story Bass Pro Shops Pyramid. The new IR will feature 20 table games and 500 slot machines along with 4 restaurants.
Hot Springs, in Oaklawn, is also planning to invest $100 million in expanding with 28,000 square feet of added gaming floor space and a 200 room hotel.
The Arkansas Racing Commission will receive 17.5% percent of commercial gaming operations taxes. Arkansas levies a 13% tax on casino profits of gross gambling revenues up to $150 million and thereafter, 20%.
Driving Arkansas Forward (DAF) is the lobbying group that got Issue 4 passed in Arkansas. They project that Oaklawn and Southland, in conjunction with 2 new casinos that are scheduled to be built in Polk and Jefferson counties, will generate $120 million in annual taxes when all four facilities are up and running.
New Arkansas Casino Properties
In addition to the expansion of the existing racinos, Issue 4 gave the OK for two new casinos to open in Polk and Jefferson counties.
The Quapaw Indians of Oklahoma have their eye on Jefferson County and they have submitted a proposal to build a casino in Pine Bluff. The Quapaw Nation is are one of the two Native American tribes that heavily funded the DAF campaign.
The proposed Quapaw casino, the Saracen Casino Resort, will cost $350 million to build. John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw tribe’s gaming unit Downstream Development Authority, announced that the casino will be a copy of the tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort in Quapaw, Oklahoma.
In both Polk and Jefferson counties, six out of ten voters must approve the new plans in order for the development to proceed. The plans must then receive the approval of a county judge. In Polk County, over 60% of the voters opposed Issue 4 so it’s unclear if the state approval for a Polk County Casino will develop into an actual casino operation.
Sports Betting in Arkansas
The November 2018 casino referendum also included a clause that allows state casinos to accept “wagers on sporting events.” That means that Arkansas is set to join the list of states that offer legalized sports betting in their jurisdictions.
Currently, none of the betting venues in Arkansas are set up to open sportsbooks. The Arkansas Racing Commission was tasked with finalizing a draft of regulations last November. That list was then sent to a legislative committee which reviewed the rules. The committee certified that the regulations meet legal requirements for Arkansas betting, even though Arkansas college sports officials asked for changes to be made. They wrote, “No one can deny the tremendous financial and reputational harm that a sports betting scandal would cause to our state universities and student-athletes, along with millions of fans, alumni and donors who support them.”
The college officials requested that the commission allow colleges to submit input on restricting certain types of wagers that, according to the officials’ letter, “carry a greater risk of student-athlete exploitation and collegiate game integrity.” They also requested greater information sharing to help combat potential problems.
The legislators, however, accepted the Gaming Commission’s regulations draft without the requested edits.
The next phase of bringing sports betting to Arkansas now involves submissions of applications to the Commission to operate sports betting. If all goes as planned, the casinos could open sportsbooks by June.
Online Sports Betting
Online betting may also become a feature of Arkansas sportsbooks but the commission is sensitive to the concerns of the colleges. To bet on in-state events involving Arkansas teams, bettors will be required to place their wagers while physically located within a casino. This was done to appease college officials. Commission chairman Alex Lieblong said that, “There is a little bit of a safety net by keeping it in-house.”