The dogs have nearly had their day at Southland Casino Racing, the 1950s-vintage greyhound track that’s now a glittery full-fledged casino expanding to the tune of $250 million.
Greyhound racing, down in popularity in recent decades and reviled by many as inhumane, will continue at the West Memphis landmark this year and then halt completely after 2,600 races next year.
That’s down from nearly 6,700 races in 2019.
“Two years from tomorrow, greyhound racing at Southland will end,” President and General Manager David Wolf told Arkansas Business on Dec. 30. “We have a group of loyal customers, but live greyhound racing is ending for one reason: Business has been down, and it continues to go down.”
The numbers bear him out.
Southland, owned by Delaware North, a $3.2 billion revenue hospitality and gambling titan based in Buffalo, New York, had net revenue of $236 million in 2018. Of that, just $16 million came from dog racing.
The greyhounds were Southland’s lifeblood for 50 years and more after it opened in 1956 at the convergence of Interstates 40 and 55; now they’re running, barking relics of a bygone era as Southland looks to revive itself as a regional destination.
A New Timeline
A gleaming blue-glass high-rise hotel is going up at the site, along with a new 113,000-SF casino complex to be filled with 2,200 slot machines and as many as 60 live table games — not to mention restaurants, bars and a VIP lounge.
The coronavirus pandemic pushed construction off its scheduled completion this year, Wolf said, but the new timeline calls for a grand opening sometime in 2022. “We’ve applied a controlled pace for construction aligned with the pandemic’s economic impact on the building industry,” Wolf said. “We could afford to do that because we already have a beautiful facility in place.”
COVID-19 forced the casino to close in April, and capacity limits ever since have held revenue under expectations. But considering the circumstances, Wolf said, the evolving casino has done well.
Southland’s gambling revenues handily surpass in-state rivals Oaklawn Racing Casino in Hot Springs and the new Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.
Not coincidentally, those casinos are also putting up new luxury hotels. The expansion rush came after Arkansans voted in November 2018 to change the state constitution and allow Las Vegas-style casinos at Southland and Oaklawn, as well as in Jefferson County, where the Quapaw Tribe set up Saracen, and in Pope County, where wrangling over competing casino proposals goes on.
Southland’s casino revenue in 2019 totaled $257 million, easily outpacing Oaklawn’s $155 million. In 2020, despite COVID, Southland had $200 million in casino revenue compared with nearly $109 million at Oaklawn.
“Southland has had by far the biggest numbers statewide,” said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration. “They’re pulling [customers] from Memphis, Tunica and beyond.”
Wolf expects the attraction to grow once the new hotel and casino space open.
The greyhound track, which drew in racing fans from afar when it opened 64 years ago as the only gambling venue in the mid-South, now draws most of its casino players from within a 75-mile radius.
“But once the new facilities are open, we expect to draw people from 150 and 250 miles and beyond,” said Wolf, who said the Memphis business community welcomes a new area hotel.
400 New Jobs
The expansion is expected to bring 400 new jobs and create a workforce of 1,200 at Southland, which has surpassed the West Memphis School District as Crittenden County’s largest employer. The school system has about 750 employees.
The Greater Memphis Chamber, acknowledging Southland’s deep investment in making itself a bigger tourism draw, named Wolf to its board of directors last year.
“We’re just seven minutes by interstate from downtown Memphis, and we’re tapping into that,” Wolf said. “There have been concerns about a lack of quality hotels downtown, so this is a win for Memphis and a win for us.”
“We are going from having no hotel to building a beautiful 300-room hotel with about 12 executive-level presidential suites, about 60-70 other suites and the rest fully magnificent 425-SF hotel rooms, well larger than the industry standard,” Wolf said. “The views and amenities are going to be beautiful.”
The new casino space will have about 2,200 slots, and 58 to 60 table games. “There’ll be a high-limit room, and a VIP room for casino guests.” he said. “All these are things we didn’t have before.”
Visitors certainly won’t go hungry or thirsty. A larger buffet is planned for a post-COVID future, a steakhouse restaurant will beckon fine dining crowds, and a food hall will offer “grab-and-go food, hamburgers, fried chicken and that sort of thing,” Wolf said. A new coffee shop and player lounge are also coming.
Blueprints call for separate bars in the steakhouse, in the middle of the casino and in the hotel lobby, which will also offer food, Wolf said. A parking garage is rising with 1,000 to 1,500 spaces to complement Southland’s 3,000 surface parking spots.
The casino will have sports kiosks in several prominent spots for players to bet on college and pro games, a popular new book in Arkansas. Southland, which started offering sports betting in January 2020, had $2.18 million in sports book revenue in 2020. Oaklawn’s sports betting revenue was $2.4 million, up from $1.1 million in 2019.
A Zero-Revenue April
Casinos had no revenue in April and little in May or early June. Southland set a monthly record of $24.4 million in revenue last February, but brought in just $7.2 million in May. By the end of the year, revenue was approaching 2019 totals.
“We’re limited to 66% of our capacity even now, but most of the time we don’t get nearly that,” Wolf said.
“We’re hopeful that we can return to a more normal capacity maybe by next November, but there are many moving parts to that, depending on the pandemic and the vaccine rollout,” Wolf said. “We’re pleased with business under the circumstances, but the toll has been significant. Table games are doing better than we had anticipated; they’re lower than projections but strong considering the restrictions.”
Southland had live table revenue of $16.1 million in 2020 compared with $15.9 million in 2019, but table gaming didn’t start until April.
The 10-story hotel and expanded casino will complete Southland’s transformation into a Las Vegas-style casino from storied dog track. It started as a successor to the old Riverside Kennel Club, West Memphis’ original greyhound raceway.
Through the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s, Southland was considered one of the top greyhound tracks in the country, drawing bettors from Arkansas, Tennessee, north Mississippi and the Missouri bootheel, according to Hot Springs historian and former Arkansas State University faculty member Nancy Hendricks. Delaware North bought the track in the early 1970s.
“A typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full, with 20,000 people in attendance,” Hendricks wrote in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
But attendance tumbled to about 500 daily after Tunica, Mississippi, opened riverboat casinos in 1992. Southland’s revenue plunged from about $200 million a year in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the mid-1990s. “More than half of its employees lost their jobs,” Hendricks wrote.
The situation reversed after Arkansas lawmakers approved video wagering on “games of skill” in 2005, turning Southland and Oaklawn into “racinos,” or racetrack-casino hybrids. Southland underwent a $40 million renovation in 2006, and a $37 million update in 2014. In the meantime, Mississippi’s riverboats lost their luster. Once home to 11 gambling palaces, Tunica now has six, and employment is down 65% to about 4,500.
Wolf emphasized that as the world awaits vaccination and a return to normal, Southland is open and roomy, and well-equipped for bettors to have a lot of masked and distanced fun. “We are operating as close to normally as we can, of course with less capacity,” Wolf said. “Cleaning and sanitizing is constant, and everybody can come here and feel safe.”