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.”

When it is mentioned that Fort Smith tax dollars may be spent in Roland or Pocola, Allen agreed with Sanders that Fort Smith isn’t completely out of the loop. “That bridge is a two-way bridge,” Allen said.

Fulton said the casino’s upgrade — specifically adding an attached 120-room hotel — is meant to make it more attractive to travelers on Interstate 40. The current facility uses a former commercial motel that is 25 years old and has only 44 rooms, Fulton said.

A search for Cherokee’s Roland casino on Internet travel sites reveals that most of the recommended hotels nearby are in Fort Smith. Having an attractive alternative on the casino grounds would help Cherokee Nation keep more revenue as visitors can now visit the casino, spend the night and then resume gambling the next day.

“It’s the next step in the evolution of the casino site,” Fulton said. “You do the math. You get two trips for one.”

Fulton said the interstate is a great luxury for the casinos in Roland and Pocola because it brings a steady stream of potential customers past the facilities daily. Cherokee Casino’s geographical area is north of the interstate and Choctaw’s is south, and Choctaw has a head start with the renovated casino — also with a 100-plus room hotel — that was finished in 2012.

Cherokee officials knew they had to upgrade in Roland or quit the market.

“We are competitive in Fort Smith,” Fulton said. “Pocola has a large geographical advantage. We don’t give up that area.

“Our biggest motivational factor was the building is nearing the end of its useful life. The question we asked is, do we still want a casino in that area? Obviously the answer is yes.”

Arkansans may gamble their money in Oklahoma, but Sanders said many of them also work in the Oklahoma casinos and bring their paychecks back home. Sanders said he still hears, occasionally, people wishing there was a casino on the Arkansas side of the border.

“It’s not a daily conversation,” Sanders said. “I really think people make the assumption that the casinos are going to be in Oklahoma.”



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