Oklahoma Casinos' Effect on Fort Smith Largely a Mystery

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

And behind that sentiment, she said, is a still-fresh fight over a plan more than five years ago to put a casino on the downtown Fort Smith waterfront. Developer Bennie Westphal, whose family had built up 74 acres by the river for future development, tried to hook up with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee in 2007 to develop a $131 million casino and hotel complex on 10 of those acres. Public sentiment was divided sharply and vocally, two consecutive Arkansas governors, Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe, weighed in against it, and ultimately the Bureau of Indian Affairs put the kibosh on the plan in 2008.

Westphal, who later donated some of the riverfront land for the planned U.S. Marshals Museum, was out of the office this week and didn’t respond before deadline to a message left seeking comment.

The upshot of that fight over the proposed in-town casino, Winchell said, is that city leaders are resolutely agnostic on pretty much all issues related to gambling. People’s memories are long, it seems.

“I still hear it every four or five weeks — ‘Gosh, we’re losing revenue!’ versus ‘I’m sure glad we don’t have a casino,’” Winchell said. “It’s a moot point, it’s polarizing, and there’s plenty of other opportunities we can agree on to improve Fort Smith.

“You’re not going to see the city government or Chamber of Commerce have much of an economic opinion on it. It’s too polarizing.”

At the Convention & Visitors Bureau, Legris seems to largely play down the presence of the cross-border gaming halls, though he by no means ignores them.

“We have not done any specific research on the impact of the casinos on our community,” he said. “However, we do include the fact those casinos are in very close proximity to Fort Smith in all our marketing materials. ... We are not aware of a specific meeting or convention that’s come to Fort Smith because of our proximity to the casinos, but we do include it in answer to what there is to do in our community.”

Mum’s the Word

Even outside City Hall, getting someone to offer anything from hard numbers to an educated guess on the casinos’ economic impact was a challenge.

Messages left for Tim Allen, president of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, were not returned by deadline — although the chamber phone system’s on-hold message did invite callers to participate in the Jack White Legislative Golf Tournament, sponsored by Cherokee Casino.

Likewise, attempts to speak with general managers of the three busiest hotels in Fort Smith — Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn City Center and Courtyard by Marriott — resulted in one polite decline and two unanswered voice mails.

Debbie Taylor, director of marketing for Choctaw Casino in Pocola, said that while she couldn’t divulge hard numbers on what Arkansans spent on the games there, about 60 percent of the casino’s customers were from this side of the state line. And the casino, in turn, spent considerable resources in Arkansas, as well.



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