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VOL. 121 | NO. 115 | Monday, June 05, 2006

OFF TO THE RACES

Southland chomps at bit to regain lost tourism dollars

By Andrew Ashby

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TOWARD THE FINISH LINE: As soon as its $38 million renovation is finished by the end of 2006, Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis should be in a better position to return to its former glory, officials and others hope. -- Photograph Courtesy Of Southland Greyhound Park

Officials with Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis are betting a $38 million renovation will bring its business back to levels it hasn't seen since the casinos came to Tunica, Miss., in 1992.

Meanwhile, many Crittenden County officials and residents simply are hoping the 50-year-old park's return to glory brings more jobs and tourist dollars.

"Years and years ago, you would drive by the dog track and the parking lot would be full," said Holmes Hammett, manager of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce. "Not only that, but there would be cars parked up and down the service roads. We're hoping that they get back to that."

Glory days

Buffalo, New York-based LPCiminelli Construction Corp. currently is gutting the first floor of the Southland Greyhound Park building at 1550 N. Ingram Blvd. to make way for the improvements.

The renovations include the Southland Event Center, which will hold more than 400 people for dinners. Southland also is planning a 150-seat nightclub and bar with four or five large plasma screen televisions. The club will feature live music on the weekends.

New York City-based JCJ Architecture designed the project, which also contains a 280-seat buffet room with three signature cooking areas: one for Asian food cooked in woks, another for Italian food cooked over a wood-fired grill and a central barbecue and carving section. The buffet area also will have dessert and salad bars.

The plan also calls for converting the current employee entrance into the new main entrance of the building. The current main entrance is on the building's southeast corner. The new entrance will have a three-lane drive leading to a covered area with valet parking and drop-off. Visitors will go through the main entrance and into the primary addition of the Southland Greyhound Park: the gaming floor.

Let the games begin

In 2005, Arkansas legislators passed Act 1151, which allows racing tracks to install games of skill if approved by a city or county vote. West Memphis voters approved the measure with a 64 percent majority last November, while voters in Hot Springs narrowly passed it to allow games of skill at the Oak Lawn Jockey Club.

Southland Greyhound Park in Brief
$38 million renovation
New gaming room
New main entrance
400-seat Southland Event Center
150-seat nightclub and bar with live music on the weekends
280-seat buffet room with three distinct cooking areas

Games of skill involve making choices; they're not like slot machines, which simply require pulling a handle. Video poker is one of the most obvious examples of a game of skill because a player decides which cards to keep and which to discard..

Electronic gaming machines have been a staple at Southland since 2000, but the park won't offer games of skill until renovations are complete. Southland currently offers gaming called Instant Racing, in which a gambler may bet on races at other tracks across the country.

Gambling is nothing new to Southland. The track features live greyhound racing year-round except for Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, when it is closed. The track also simulcasts races from greyhound, thoroughbred horse and harness racing tracks across the country

Hold 'em or fold 'em

Southland general manager Barry Baldwin and his wife, Janie, first visited the track in 1982 while he was working for its parent company, Delaware North Companies Inc. They saw 20,000 people packed in the park that night.

"I asked if they were giving a car away, but it was just another good Saturday night," he said.

The casinos in Tunica changed all of that. In 1989, gamblers wagered $212 million on the live greyhound races at Southland. Last year, the park pulled in $33.5 million on live races.

"We're hoping this brings us up to the level we were at before Tunica came into the area," Baldwin said. "Right now, when we have 500 people here, we expect to see 5,000 in the future."

Greyhound racing takes place at 40 tracks in 12 states, according to the Greyhound Racing Association of America, and gamblers bet more than $2 billion on these races each year.

Baldwin said Southland used to be the No. 1 dog track in the nation. It was the only gambling site in the Mid-South, drawing people from as far as Chicago.

"Now we expect to get some of those tourism dollars back again," he said.

In addition to tourism dollars, Baldwin said the renovations could bring more jobs to the area. Southland employs more than 300 people, but could add another 200 once the renovations are completed at the end of the year. That would return Southland's employment numbers nearly to the levels of its heyday, when 680 people worked there.

The area also will feel a direct economic benefit. Various percentages of the revenue from the park's new gaming machines will go to different entities.

The state of Arkansas gets 18 percent, the city of West Memphis gets 1.5 percent and Crittenden County gets 0.5 percent.

On top of that, 14 percent of the new gaming revenue goes to the award purses for races. An additional 1 percent goes to the Arkansas Breeders' Awards program, which gives bonuses to greyhound owners who raise their dogs in Arkansas.

Also, 1 percent of the new revenue will go to the Southland Greyhound Park Foundation, which will give 50 percent of its money to charitable organizations in Crittenden County and the surrounding area and the other 50 percent toward scholarships and schools in West Memphis.

"It's really going to have a big economic impact because it's a win-win-win," Baldwin said.

Back on track

Crittenden County church groups have shown some opposition to games of skill, and some citizens have written letters to the editor in the Evening Times, Crittenden County's local paper.

"But the majority went to the polls and said they wanted it," Hammett said.

Hammett came to West Memphis in 1985 and he's seen how the Tunica casinos affected Southland.

"When the casinos came, it killed Southland," he said. "(Southland) was just holding on, and we lost a lot of money to Tunica."

Hammett is hoping the renovation will be an economic tool not just for West Memphis, but also for the whole county, bringing tourism money, tax dollars and jobs.

"I'm excited about it," Holmes said. "When I go out there, I want to see more done. It's not going fast enough for me."

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 76 166 10,044
MORTGAGES 105 195 13,070
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 35 2,573
BUILDING PERMITS 216 370 23,894
BANKRUPTCIES 82 152 9,685
BUSINESS LICENSES 42 51 3,654
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 103 264 14,227
MARRIAGE LICENSES 29 53 3,116

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