Gambling Near Fort Smith Continues to Expand

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Jun. 2, 2014 12:00 am  

The Cherokee Casino in Roland, Oklahoma, is transforming itself with an $80 million 170,000-SF upgrade. | (Photo by Beth Hall)

Western Arkansas remains an attractive target market for American Indian tribes seeking to expand their gambling business. That’s borne out by a couple of planned and new projects.

One is the Cherokee Casino & Hotel in Roland, Oklahoma, just 8 miles from Fort Smith. It’s an $80 million overhaul comprising a 170,000-SF facility that includes a convention center, expanded electronic and table games, dining areas and a 120-room hotel. The Cherokee Nation broke ground for the project in April.

And in Pocola, Oklahoma, the Choctaw Casino — with its parking lot across the state line in Arkansas — recently opened up a renovated 150,000-SF facility.

Cherokee Nation officials said Fort Smith is a key target for its Roland casino, as is the entire northwest Arkansas region. There is also a Cherokee casino in West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma, right up against the state line with Siloam Springs.

“Northeast Oklahoma, southeast Missouri and northwest Arkansas are really borders we look at,” said Mark Fulton, COO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment, which runs the casinos. “West Siloam Springs and Roland specifically border Arkansas and they are target areas.”

Back in 2007, a Fort Smith developer made plans to build a $131 million casino and hotel on the banks of the Arkansas River in Fort Smith in cooperation with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, with support from Arkansas Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe, rejected the plan.

For Fort Smith residents interested in trying their hand at the slots or in a poker room, the alternative was a quick 10-minute drive to one of the Indian casinos. Fulton said the Roland casino gets about 42 percent of its gaming business from people from Fort Smith and Van Buren.

Sixty-five percent of the casino’s revenue comes from Arkansas visitors, Fulton said. A Cherokee Nation official said the tribe doesn’t divulge the revenue generated by individual casinos, but a company report showed the eight casinos under the Cherokee umbrella brought in $549.7 million in revenue for the fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30.

Fort Smith officials said that while the bulk of the casino visitors’ money may be spent in Roland, their town sees its fair share.

“A number of those people live in Fort Smith,” said Mayor Sandy Sanders, referring to the casino visitors. “They still do their shopping in Fort Smith. Fort Smith benefits from that standpoint. A majority of the cars in the Choctaw parking lot have Arkansas tags.”

Tim Allen, president of Fort Smith’s Chamber of Commerce, said he understands if someone might wistfully imagine an Arkansas casino generating the kind of revenue the one in Roland reported. But until the state Constitution is amended to allow casino gambling in Arkansas, it’s pointless to consider the issue.

“It’s a question a lot of communities face,” Allen said. “Choctaw and others are expanding or growing. I don’t see it as an economic development tool. It’s a tourist aspect people enjoy. It’s part of the hospitality industry. That’s an important industry.”



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