A message board in the construction trailer complex at the Saracen Casino Resort job site proclaims the countdown: 159 days till substantial completion.
To get the first phase of the $350 million Pine Bluff development open as soon as possible, crews are racing the clock on a work schedule that is essentially 24/7.
By contract, June 26 is the opening date circled to let the card dealing, dice tumbling and roulette wheel spinning begin at Saracen. But John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation, is betting the casino will be ready for play even sooner.
“My goal is sometime in May to have a soft opening,” Berrey said.
In addition to 2,000 slot machines, the casino will have room to accommodate 50 table games. But Berrey expects to start with a mix of 30 or so blackjack, poker, craps and roulette games.
The 80,000-SF casino will be ringed by seven restaurants, including versions of the Legends sports bar and Red Oak Steakhouse at the tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort in Oklahoma.
Also on the Saracen dining menu will be a buffet, three fast-casual restaurants and a coffee shop serving up pastries and gelato. The tribe is developing local options for produce, catfish and more. (For casino food strategies, see Casinos Use Dining to Build Loyalty, Brand.)
The Quapaws’ fun-atmosphere-plus-good-food recipe for success will serve up bacon-wrapped bison tenderloin at the Red Oak and signature blends of roasted coffee.
Completion of the casino will be celebrated with the first of two grand openings. A second will follow next year when the 300-room, 13-story hotel tower and adjoining events center are completed.
All told, Saracen Casino Resort will have 540,000 SF for gaming, dining, gathering and overnighting.
Annex Draws Crowds
The Quapaw launched the whirlwind development last year along with a smaller companion project across the road from the 342-acre casino resort site.
The land and the 14-acre Q Store-Saracen Annex property were acquired as part of six transactions totaling more than $6.6 million that included the Southern Edge Truck Stop.
The truck stop had a strong book of business that carried over to the Q Store and mushroomed with the opening of the Saracen Annex.
While the reception to annex gaming exceeded Berrey’s expectations, the biggest surprise was the volume of fried chicken gizzards that flowed through the Q Store. At last count, the average was 100 pounds of chicken gizzards daily.
“It just blows our mind how popular those fried foods are,” Berrey said.
The Quapaw transformed the 5,300-SF truck stop into the Q Store and added the 15,000-SF gambling annex. The makeover and new construction were completed in 97 days.
The annex opening seemed an unexpected first move to Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, and to other local boosters. “They began hiring people right away and producing revenue,” Watley said. “Speed, it’s unprecedented. But the faster, the better. Everybody is at the table working together.”
The convenience store-slots parlor combo has attracted people looking to play slots, bend an elbow, fill up and chow down. Biggest single slots payout to date at the Saracen Annex? $56,000.
“Our original intention was to have a soft opening for vendors on Sept. 27,” said Carlton Saffa, Saracen spokesman. “But after one hour, we opened it to the general public and announced it on social media: Surprise, we’re opening to everyone.
“We knew we were ready, and that was 100% a credit to our staff. We’ve been open 24/7 ever since.”
While 300 slot machines are the main attraction at the Saracen Annex, the project marked the first foray into sportsbook wagering for the Quapaw.
“The first two machines came off the showroom floor,” Saffa said. “The interest in this has been tremendous.”
Four sports betting machines are now in the front lounge area of the annex watering hole, the Oxbow Bar. Two more are on order. Also on the way are 10 sports betting kiosks scheduled to be online in March. (For more on sports books in Arkansas, see Book It: Sports Betting Takes Off in Arkansas.)
Home cooking and convenience store fare are available in the neighboring Q Store. Libations from the Oxbow Bar can’t leave the Saracen Annex.
“We can sell liquor 24 hours, but we don’t,” Saffa said of the bar. “We stop at 2 a.m. It was a restraint that we put on ourselves.”
The decision was made to observe traditional Arkansas last-call hours for now before reopening at 8 a.m. The six-hour break creates a pregnant pause from serving alcoholic beverages to reset, tidy up, do inventory and take care of other barkeeping chores.
“Every time I drive past the annex, the parking lot is packed, and the gas pumps are busy,” said Nancy Lee McNew, vice president of economic development for Jefferson County at the Economic Development Alliance. “The casino construction is really moving along and seems to look closer to completion every day.”
Of the 1,100 hires planned to staff the Saracen Annex and Saracen Casino Resort, 300 are in place. “We’ve got quite a ways to go,” Berrey said.
According to his rough breakdown of new-hire demographics, more than 80% are women, about 75% are African American and 95% are from Jefferson County.
In the big picture, Saracen represents Downstream Casino version 2.0. Berrey expects the new casino to generate grand opening traffic jams just as Downstream did on July 5, 2008.
When the doors opened that evening, 10,000 poured into a gaming area designed to handle 6,000 comfortably. By midnight, 30,000 had come to see the new game in town.
With a gaming floor 10,000 SF bigger than Downstream, Saracen’s coming out party could be even larger.