Oklahoma Casinos' Effect on Fort Smith Largely a Mystery

by Eric Francis  on Monday, Sep. 9, 2013 12:00 am  

Fort Smith City Hall sits just six blocks from the Arkansas River, and a little more than six miles from the Cherokee Casino in Roland, Okla. That trip will take you 10 minutes by car.

You’ll have to tack another five minutes onto your drive to get from City Hall to the new Choctaw Casino, which opened in December seven-and-a-half miles away in Pocola, Okla. When you get there, you’ll actually be able to park your car in Arkansas then walk across the parking lot — and the state line — into the casino, which so emphasizes its proximity in advertising to Arkansans that one might be forgiven for thinking it is actually in Fort Smith.

Casinos, of course, are big business. Even the “racinos” — casino-lite versions — at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland Park in West Memphis generate more wagers in two months than the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery generates in a full year. (See here for numbers.)

But if you want to know how much gambling is being done in Fort Smith’s backyard, or how much of an economic impact the Cherokee and Choctaw casinos have in Fort Smith, you may be out of luck. The Indian tribes that own and operate the casinos are virtually unregulated by the state of Oklahoma, and the city of Fort Smith certainly isn’t trying to track the dollars.

“We haven’t,” said Tracy Winchell, communications manager for the city of Fort Smith. “It’s really hard to quantify in terms of an official position on the economic impact.”

Likewise, Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau Director Claud Legris doesn’t have an answer.

“I can’t give you hard numbers,” he said apologetically. “Our situation is what we’re going to do is attract dollars from outside our community into our community, with the understanding that some Fort Smith residents spend more time driving to work than they do to a casino.”

And Diane Morrison, director of the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization, couldn’t shed any light, either.

“I do not know, but those would all be really interesting things to know,” she said when asked about how much the casinos contribute to the Fort Smith economy in terms of money and jobs.

Still Fresh

Winchell said she’s not sure anybody in Fort Smith’s city government even wants to know those statistics.

“Whether you talk to Ray [Gosack, the city administrator] or just about anybody within city government, you’re not going to get us saying one way or the other that this is good or bad, and as a result there’s not any need to quantify it,” she said.

 

 

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