Electronic Gaming Boosts Economy in West Memphis, Hot Springs

by Mark Hengel  on Monday, Mar. 16, 2009 12:00 am  

Introducing electronic gaming has enabled Oaklawn Park of Hot Springs to compete with casinos in surrounding states, General Manager Eric Jackson said.

Oaklawn's management is also chipper about what the future might hold.

"As good as purses are today, they could be even better," Eric Jackson, Oaklawn's general manager, said. "We are the phoenix of American racetracks. The racing industry – and I know this sounds self-promoting – but it is marveling at Oaklawn Park."

With the new revenue adding millions of dollars to purses offered at the track, many of the premier thoroughbreds are choosing to race at the park. Attendance at the track is remaining steady, while other tracks around the nation are experiencing declines, Jackson said. Charles Cella of St. Louis owns Oaklawn Park.

Feeling the Effect
Economic development officials in each community supported the expansion of electronic gaming and say the effects are now apparent.

"The people coming here, any of the money they would have spent on gas, what they spent in town, it adds up real fast," Ward Wimbish, director of West Memphis' office of economic development, said.

When Wimbish visits Southland for chamber or Rotary meetings, which both take place at Southland, the impact is evident, he said.

"I know its front parking lot, where it at one time was pretty sad looking, it's pretty full now," Wimbish said. "We see them coming in from Memphis; especially when the gas prices are up, it's a whole lot easier."

The city has also contracted with Memphis' transportation department for about eight years to bring bus service into West Memphis, Wimbish said. The service runs four bus routes, with one stopping at Southland.

"You'll see that ridership has increased on that bus route," Wimbish said.

Southland's quick expansion into electronic gaming paid off immediately, Wimbish said. The slower introduction at Oaklawn has meant the full impact will not be known for some time, said David Byerly, president and CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Whereas Southland unveiled its $40 million addition as soon as it could, Oaklawn has gradually introduced the gaming devices in Hot Springs. On May 1, the racetrack will unveil its expansion of its gaming floor. Hot Springs will not experience the true effect of expanded gaming for another year or two, Byerly said.

"It'll be even more dramatic when they have established the expansion," Byerly said. He did not want to speculate about how the expansion will affect the Hot Springs business community, but he expects business owners to see a positive effect, one likely to grow.



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