When completed, the Saracen Casino Resort planned for Pine Bluff is expected to generate $32 million in tax-based revenue in five years, according to Chief John Berrey. Its location will be the property at the corner of US 63/79 and the Martha Mitchell Expressway across from the Social Security complex and the Pines Mall.
Berrey is chairman of Downstream Development Authority, which has been selected by leaders in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County to operate the casino here. Voters approved a casino measure in the 2018 election.
But not everyone in Jefferson County is anticipating the casino’s arrival with excitement.
A group of White Hall residents having lunch on a recent afternoon voiced concerns over what they say is the “moral corruption” of an otherwise “quiet county.”
Jake Sanders, who lives in Redfield, said he doesn’t believe in gambling and voted against the casino measure. He said such an operation “just opens up a Pandora’s box of bad things that can happen. First, you look at crime in Pine Bluff. It’s already bad. What do you think will happen when all those folks walk out of the casino with their winnings? They are going to get robbed.”
Casino officials have ensured that security will be tight at the facility, and statistics from the Pine Bluff Police Department show an overall decline in criminal activity over the past several years.
“I’m not as worried about the crime as I am the moral corruption,” said White Hall resident Joyce Ballard. “You look at our area. It’s full of some of the poorest people in the state. You and I both know they will be going up to that casino and spending their paycheck on the roulette wheel. It’s just wasting money.”
Like Sanders, Ballard said she voted against the casino measure and said most of the people she knows in the community did as well.
But Sanders’ and Ballard’s lunchmate Joyce DeWitt said she is taking a “wait and see” approach to the casino.
“I mean, you look at the jobs that it will bring, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” DeWitt said. “I mean, we need jobs. We need all the jobs we can get.”
Speaking to the Pine Bluff Rotary Club last week, Berrey, of the Quapaw Tribe, said Downstream Development has already “spent thousands of dollars” preparing for construction, which he said will begin as soon as the State Racing Commission approves a license. He said that could happen in April.
He said the Downstream Casino, which the tribe owns in Oklahoma, was built in 10 months, and the goal is to build the Saracen Casino and Resort in a similar time frame.
Berrey said the gaming floor will be built first, “to give us cash flow,” while the 300-room resort hotel could take an additional six months “to finish out all the rooms.”
“We want to help make Pine Bluff better,” he said. “We want to create a destination for people to come from outside Jefferson County.”
Berrey said construction costs for the casino resort will run between $210 and $240 million dollars and will require an estimated 1,000 workers.
“That means when we get rolling, Mr. Gerald (County Judge Gerald Robinson) and Miss Shirley (Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington) will have folding money instead of having to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
He also said that the combination casino resort will create 1,000 to 1,100 permanent jobs and said Downstream Development is working with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College to train future workers.
“If you have the want to, and the skill set, we will train you,” he said.
In terms of benefits, Berrey said the facility will have an on-site clinic and daycare for employees.
“Some of our employees (at the Oklahoma casino) make more than $100,000 a year, and some of them are single mothers,” Berrey said. “We’ve been operating in Oklahoma for 10 years, and 65 percent of the employees who started with us are still with us. We have the best benefits package of any company in the community.”
Asked by Robinson if some of the employees who work in Oklahoma will be transferring to Pine Bluff, Berrey said, “Yes they will. We want people to come down here.”
As far as other potential employees, Berrey said, “It’s good for us and good for Hot Springs and good for Southland but Tunica is on its last breath.”
In a related matter, Berrey said Downstream Development has bought the Southern Edge Truck Stop on U.S. 63 near the site where the casino will be located, explaining that a company-owned store like Southern Edge that’s located near the Oklahoma casino is the second-highest revenue generating store in Oklahoma.
“It was a fair deal for us, and we are able to grow our business in another place in the same locality,” Berrey said.
As far as an opening, Berrey said he was shooting for Valentine’s Day in 2020.
“We will probably have a few soft openings before that, just to be sure everything is ready, but when we have the opening, it’s going to be a tremendous opening,” he said.