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.

Byerly said the chamber's members consider Oaklawn a major factor in each year's success.

"It's a common thought among many of the chamber's smaller members that a large majority will do upwards of 60 percent of their business during the racing season," he said. Racing runs for 54 days and spans about four months from January to April each year.

"I think it puts a tremendous amount of dollars into the economy," he said.

Attendance at the track topped out at between 675,000 and 700,000 visitors during the 2008 racing season. Oaklawn's attendance is up about 4 percent so far this season, the track reports. The track also draws large crowds to watch and bet on many of the year's biggest horse races, like the Kentucky Derby, Byerly said.

The track now draws visitors throughout the year with the electronic games, he said. And as the facility grows, the number will likely increase.

"I don't think we've seen the answer [to the question of the impact] yet because even though we fill a parking lot, until a new product comes to market and comes to capacity, we don't know what that impact will be," he said. Whatever the extent, it will be good for local business, he said.

Competition From Tunica
Both tracks' fortunes have changed dramatically during the last two decades.

"In the 1990s, there was a question of whether Oaklawn would survive," Jackson said. "Tunica just about put us out of business."

By the 1990s, the "American consumer" had shifted to electronic gaming and away from racing, Jackson said. Over a period of years after gambling was introduced in Tunica in 1992, Oaklawn lost about 40 percent of its business, Jackson said. Attendance during the track's 1990 live season was 1.14 million, Jackson said. By 2000, attendance had fallen to 646,000, he said.

Tunica's competition coupled with Southland's dependence on greyhound racing left the West Memphis track fearing for its future as well.

"It's helped the business by diversifying our products so we could recapture some of our market from when gaming expanded in Tunica," Keeping said. Southland was one-dimensional in the 1980s, Keeping said. The park hit its peak during the decade, Keeping said. Since the 1980s, most forms of racing have declined, he said.

The industry has shifted away from horse racing, and racing in general, Jackson said.



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