As predicted months ago, the owners of the Southland Park casino and dog track in West Memphis will announce today a major expansion thanks to Amendment 100, which solidified the legality of their existing casino, expanded gambling options and gave it a huge state tax break in the bargain.
The formal announcement — to be attended by one-time gambling opponent Gov. Asa Hutchinson — is later today, but various media are reporting Delaware North plans to spend $250 million on a bigger casino and 20-story hotel. This will further entice nearby Memphis gamblers, to the detriment of farther removed Tunica, Miss., already suffering a slump in casino income.
Southland has long operated in a legal netherworld. Unlike Oaklawn Park, the thoroughbred track and casino in Hot Springs, it didn’t enjoy constitutional protection for its parimutuel wagering. But it had statutory protection and, along with Oaklawn, expanded into casino games through an artifice known as “electronic games of skill.”‘ There’s no skill in playing electronic slot machines, but nobody ever challenged the legality of gambling at the two casinos, despite the constitutional prohibition on lotteries.
Amendment 100 explicitly legalizes the Oaklawn and Southland casinos, which means they may use real cards, have dice tumbling on felt, real roulette wheels and otherwise be identical to casinos elsewhere, rather than being limited to electronic versions of the gambling options. They may also have sports betting (though religious groups are gearing up to try to persuade the Racing Commission and legislature to throw up obstacles to this and use of credit cards for gambling.)
Amendment 100 also cuts the state tax take on gambling by a significant amount — an estimated $38 million for the two casinos this year. And it enhances money devoted to racing purses. Oaklawn earlier announced a $100 million hotel and casino expansion project. Southland was a major investor in the Amendment 100 campaign, along with Indian tribes with interests in new casinos in Jefferson and Pope Counties. Oaklawn didn’t take a formal position, but its lack of opposition was the equivalent of support. Its attorneys helped in the drafting of the amendment, a leader of one of the Indian casino organizations has told me.
I’ll be interested to hear if Delaware North is asked today about the future of dog racing at Southland. It’s a dying sport, with only a handful of states with struggling dog tracks still in the business. Thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn is booming, thanks to rich purses that attract top horses.
The current existence of dog racing qualifies Southland for casino gambling under Amendment 100, but nothing in the amendment requires the operation to continue offering greyhound racing, according to a lawyer who worked on the amendment.