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VOL. 121 | NO. 222 | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Southland Park Rebounds With Gaming Machines, Bigger Dog-Racing Awards

By Zachary Zoeller

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IT'S SHOWTIME: Elmo and the Shades perform last week in The Juke Joint at Southland Park Gaming and Racing. The grand re-opening of the gambling and racing facility will be Saturday. -- Photo By Zachary Zoeller

A hum of bells, beeps and whistles mixed with the drone of vacuum cleaners in the gaming area of the renovated Southland Park in West Memphis late last week.

At 9:45 a.m. Friday, dozens of patrons waited outside to take their seats in front of the facility's 915 electronic gambling machines as employees rushed to put the finishing touches on the gambling and dining areas.

Suddenly the fire alarm screamed out, its red lights circling the dining area.

"It's just a test. They've been doing this every 15 minutes," said Ron Sultemeier, president of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North Cos. Gaming & Entertainment, which owns Southland.

Then the lights went out.

Sultemeier whipped out his cell phone and poked his head into the gambling area.

"Is this a test?" he asked.

The lights came back up, and the gambling machines started flashing and beeping again, beckoning gamblers to put their money down. A smile came over Sultemeier's face, easing his apparent opening-day nerves.

While the facility has been open since Thursday night, the grand re-opening celebration will be held Saturday at 6 p.m.

Let the games begin

Southland Park Gaming and Racing, the reincarnation of the declining Southland Greyhound Park, went through a $40 million renovation this year.

The Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 1151 in March 2005 to allow racing tracks to add electronic "games of skill," defined as "games played through any electronic device or machine that affords an opportunity for the exercise of skill or judgment where the outcome is not completely controlled by chance alone."

That paved the way for local referendums in West Memphis and Hot Springs, Ark., on Nov. 8, 2005, to decide whether each community wanted the gambling facilities. It passed with a 64 percent majority in West Memphis, and Delaware North officials immediately began planning the Southland makeover.

The Hot Springs referendum passed with a slight majority, and Oaklawn Park's gambling facility will open Saturday.

Decadence rules

LPCiminelli Construction Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., was hired to renovate the 50-year-old Southland Park building at 1550 N. Ingram Blvd. Workers began gutting the first floor in March, clearing out about 7,500 first-tier seats for the 110,000-square-foot dining, meeting and gaming areas.

JCJ Architecture of New York City designed the project, which incorporated some local materials, such as fieldstone from Fayetteville, to construct the buffet.

Seven types of marble were used for counter and bar tops, as well as multi-colored tile and carpets.

To play one of the facility's 603 Lock and Roll games, gamblers have two chances to win. Reels spin and stop, allowing players to lock a choice in before spinning again to increase the odds of winning.

Twelve tables of video blackjack game Digital 21 are on hand, and the rest are video poker, including 40 machines of Texas Hold 'Em, a variation of poker.

The 150-seat Juke Joint sports bar features plasma screen TVs, and a meeting area adjacent to the gambling area can hold about 500 people. A 280-seat buffet boasts Italian, Asian and American food as well as a dessert bar.

You bet

While conquering Tunica is not in the equation, Southland officials are optimistic about the facility's economic prospects.

"If Tunica wasn't there, we'd have built out a much bigger facility," Sultemeier said. "But we think we absolutely can compete."

Fifteen percent of Southland's revenues from gambling will bolster dog-racing purses, which average about $450 for a first-place win. The awards will increase about 150 percent, or about $675, Sultemeier said.

"It'll have a major impact right away," he said.

The park hired 325 new employees, mostly at a job fair in late August, and the projected 2007 payroll is $13.5 million, compared to $6.1 million in 2006, said Southland manager Barry Baldwin.

"There's going to be a huge domino effect," he said. "Even if you don't like gambling per se, you're going to benefit from this."

Surprise, surprise

Building crews ran across a few surprises during the eight-month construction process.

While they were removing old tile and walls, they found 50-year-old asbestos. Construction was shut down for a month while crews in uniforms reminiscent of space suits cleaned out the hazardous material, Baldwin said.

Air ducts had to be constructed from the kitchen through the second-tier seating, eliminating some seats, he said. Also, in the main entrance, which is still under construction, a wall with six accordion-like fire doors had to be built because of local building codes. The doors will be drawn shut in the event of a fire, but several other exits were installed to comply with the codes.

Local code officials are allowing Southland to install a giant digital screen, similar to those at sporting arenas, on its sign along Interstate 40. The 80-foot-sign actually is larger than those allowed, but "it was grandfathered in," because of its age, Baldwin said.

What skill?

Despite the 2005 public approval, the Arkansas Family Council Action Committee has opposed both Southland Park and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

The Little Rock-based conservative education and research organization has challenged the constitutionality of the November 2005 city referendums and the games of skill ruling.

"I don't know of anyone that with a straight face could tell you that video poker is a game of skill," said Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council. "It's gambling - you put money into a slot and you either win money or lose money."

The group's argument was rejected by circuit court judges in Crittenden and Garland counties last summer, but the latter case is being appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Cox said.

"In the last 10 years or more, the owners have wanted to convert those live racetracks into a casino-like environment," he said.

PROPERTY SALES 92 242 2,507
MORTGAGES 108 336 2,943
BUILDING PERMITS 202 643 6,711
BANKRUPTCIES 43 176 1,963