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.

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.

“We have membership with all the surrounding chambers — Rogers-Lowell, Fort Smith, Poteau [Okla.] — and somebody from our organization participates in their events and activities,” said Taylor. “The casino is very involved in the community and does dozens of sponsorships, makes donations to a lot of local organizations: the university, the state fair, the Arkansas-Oklahoma fair. And we have advertising in all the surrounding cities.”

In addition, the casino makes purchases in Fort Smith when it needs prizes for giveaways, letterhead, printing and so forth. Throw in the tourism dollars and it’s “a huge trickle-down effect,” she said.

“I don’t know how a city could evaluate that impact,” Taylor said.

Last year, at a topping-out ceremony for the Choctaw Casino, Janie Dillard, executive director of gaming, and the Choctaw Tribal Council said even its smaller predecessor had 500 employees and an annual payroll of $11 million. The bigger — 150,000-SF — replacement casino was expected to have almost twice as many employees

Tim Landis, who oversees public relations for the Cherokee casinos in Oklahoma, said that he couldn’t release information on gaming revenue or the number of guests from Arkansas who visit their facility in Roland, calling it proprietary due to the competing Choctaw Casino down the road in Pocola. He offered to get someone on the casino’s management team in touch with Arkansas Business to talk about employment of Fort Smith residents and partnerships with the city, but wasn’t heard back from by deadline.

A July 2013 report from the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal agency, indicated that 64 Indian gaming operations in Kansas and eastern Oklahoma brought in $2 billion during 2012. And a 2011 report titled “Where the Casino Money Goes,” available on Cherokee.org, said that in 2010 the Cherokee Nation cleared $455 million in revenue from its eight Oklahoma casinos.

Eric Francis is a freelance journalist living in North Little Rock.

 

 

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