Construction began on Saracen Casino and Resort in August of 2019, but the vision from Quapaw Nation came long before that date.
Just four years before construction began, Quapaw Nation sought to purchase a tract of approximately 160 acres of land near Little Rock, but they were met with several bumps in the road.
Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde had been an open critic of the tribe's land-into-trust application from the start. In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde offered his opinion.
“Because there was no follow-up, I assumed that it wasn’t a serious offer,” asserted Judge Hyde.
Quapaw Nation at the time had vowed not to build a gaming property if approved, but opposition to the acquisition cited the battle in Kansas as a reason not to trust that statement. A previous land-into-trust application for 124 acres located in Kansas also made no mention of gaming. However, the tribe had changed its stance later and proposed a $15 million expansion to their Downstream Casino property. Quapaw Nation would again do the same in Arkansas as it joined two other tribal nations in the 2018 gaming initiative.
Fast forward several years, fervent lobbying, a six million dollars' investment, victory in the gaming initiative, along with securing a gaming license, Saracen Development LLC, a subsidiary of Quapaw Nation, began the massive $350 million project. Although the tribe eventually did buy that property in the port, a location in Pine Bluff, Ark., was chosen for Saracen, named for the government appointed Quapaw chief, to come home.
Originally slated to be completed by the spring of 2020, COVID-19 played a role in several delays. Equipment and material were in high demand and short supply. Spring turned into summer, and summer passed into fall. July also saw a change in leadership as Quapaw Nation chose Chairman Joseph T. Byrd and Secretary-Treasurer Guy Barker over incumbents John Berrey and Tamara Smiley-Reeves to lead them into the next decade.
"Witnessing the progress of Saracen Casino has been nothing short of remarkable," said Chairman Byrd.
Proving the stability of the new Quapaw Nation leadership became the next order of business, as investors were wary of a change so close to opening. Some were convinced that former Chairman John Berrey was Chief for life. There was concern from the community of Pine Bluff as well. Would Saracen still open? Would the Quapaw Nation sell the property? Rumors and misinformation swelled around what could happen.
"I look forward to what the future holds for the entire Saracen Casino Resort," Byrd continued.
The previous leadership of Quapaw Nation had a vision for the future of their people. Many of those dreams were realized during their tenure in office, and the Quapaw Nation's reputation grew. Quapaw Nation was one of the largest employers in the four-state area before the change-up, but that landscape was getting ready to grow again. With new leadership coming in, the transition understandably made some nervous.
Members of the Quapaw Nation Business Committee brought in Chris Samples to help with the construction project. They also had assistance from Carlton Saffa, who had been with the project since before Saracen received a gaming license in June 2019.
“We hit the ground running,” recalled Saffa. “Unlike the fourth casino license, Pope County, Saracen’s application for a license was approved without any controversy and work began literally that very afternoon. Less than four months after licensure, we were live with 300 slot machines at the smaller property, the Saracen Annex, and we began to build our brand and our database.”
Matt Harkness and Jim Burns joined the Saracen team officially in October of 2020 as the General Manager (GM) and Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Mr. Harkness, GM of the property, has over forty years of experience in gaming, including over twenty as a GM. In that time, he has worked in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Saipan, a US territory in the Pacific. Jim Burns, CFO, has seventeen years' experience in gaming as a CFO with more than two years' experience in a dual role as CFO and GM. Considering his introduction to Indian Country in a tribal administrator role, Mr. Burns has nineteen years' experience in Indian Country, including positions in Arizona, Michigan and Texas. The team still needed several pieces put into place, but Saracen's leadership immediately began to fill those voids. The next challenge would be to open the property.
Opening of Saracen
Saracen Casino's grand opening took place on October 20, 2020. A few days before the grand opening, the facility held soft openings for local leadership, press, vendors, and the staff of Saracen.
"I have been to some casino openings over the past twenty years that have had some significant issues; that was not the case here," remarked Vice-Chairwoman Bowden. "Operationally, everything went very smooth. It ran as if we didn't miss a beat, and I am very thankful to the hard-working staff that worked the late hours and nights during a mask-mandated pandemic to ensure that the Saracen Casino opening was such a success. Everyone pulled together the last few weeks and really made it happen."
"I believe we are the first Tribal Nation to open up a casino in the middle of a pandemic," said Guy Barker, secretary-treasurer of Quapaw Nation.
With the property open, and a connection within the community taking shape, the investors still seemed skeptical. The goal was to gain their confidence. Now that Saracen had the community backing and the numbers were showing a significant Return on Investment (ROI), the priority for the Casino’s leadership team shifted to earning the trust of those that were still hesitant.
Recently, we visited the property to gather pictures for this story. However, we also wanted to speak to the employees and gain an understanding of how Saracen affects the lives of those team members and the community as a whole.
An Inside Look
The outside of Saracen still lacks in initial appeal as construction awaits the next step, but the inside is an entirely different story.
As you enter the property, the walls are adorned with glass cases of Quapaw Nation artist Betty Gaetdke's work. Down the left corridor, you will find the Q Club office, where patrons may sign up for a Q Card to join the casino’s Q Rewards system. If you head to the right, you will enter a food court providing a choice of four different food outlets.
The approximately 80,000 square foot gaming floor is massive and beautiful, and directly in the center, you'll find the Crossroads bar. The bar itself is well designed; its U-shape allowing bartenders to work a greater area and provide better service to their patrons. Edellya Daniels, a bartender at the Crossroads, has been with Saracen since opening.
"Saracen has done so much for me. I just had my fourth child [three months ago] and needed a bigger vehicle. In the past year, I've been able to get financed for a new vehicle and a house. My last employer didn't even have benefits."
~ Edellya Daniels
Crossroads bar has become a weekend hotspot for the community, and you won't find open space in it very often on Fridays and Saturdays. On the other side of the Crossroads bar is the table games pit, which showcases 35 table games. To the left of table games, at the back of the casino, you’ll find a large poker room as well.
A common theme around the property was that Saracen is the leading contributing force in rebuilding the community. It is partially because Saracen is among the state's largest employers, and because there are few leisure activities available in Pine Bluff, Ark. aside from Saracen.
“For many in Pine Bluff, the old days were brighter than today,” Saffa reflected. “That is, until the Quapaw Nation made news in Arkansas with the largest one-time tourism investment in the state’s history. Saracen means jobs and optimism for a community in need. For the Nation, it represents a major accomplishment, as Saracen is one of only a handful of Native-owned commercial casinos in existence."
The entire population of Arkansas is estimated to be around three million people. According to census records, the capital of Little Rock has a population of 197,000 as of 2021. To put that into perspective, the entire population of Oklahoma is approximately 3.97 million. Pine Bluff, Arkansas, has seen a 35% reduction in its population in the last handful of years. Most of that can be attributed to a decrease of jobs brought on by a plant leaving town. When Saracen opened, it was as if new air had been breathed into the lungs of a dying community.
"Saracen is bringing jobs to the people," said Maranda Pittman. Pittman joined Saracen once the table games department was established and brought six years of experience to the Casino. "I moved from Mississippi to Hot Springs after the pandemic, because my previous employer was moving us all to part-time. We're always hiring. It's better for the community, because the economy was stagnant before."
If you are looking for some good food, Saracen offers four different outlets, with seven distinctive menus. Legends Bar and Grill's menu is modeled after Downstream Casino's grill of the same name. There are a few different options, however. If you prefer to spice things up a bit, Nashville Hot Chicken Wraps can fulfill that need. You can also look forward to meeting some of the excellent bar staff, who were all very pleasant and constantly smiling.
"There's something for the community to do now," Angela Howard offered. Howard transferred to bartending from kitchen utility five months ago. "Bring in the Casino, restaurants, and you bring jobs. You also give the people a place to get some entertainment in this small community."
"The benefits and pay here are great,” Beatrice Johnson told the Quapaw Post. “I live in Little Rock, and I have customers stop me all the time to talk. It’s good to know that we provide a service to the community and that service is recognized with a smile.”
Although closed when we were on the property, the buffet is breathtaking. The $50 fee might seem high to some, but in larger casino venues the price is typical when accounting for the items served, including all-you-can-eat crab legs. The buffet also has a bar to serve alcoholic beverages.
All of the options mentioned are, of course, in addition to the nearly 2,300 slot machines. If that seems like a high number of slots, it is. In comparison, Downstream Casino currently has approximately 1,600 slots on its floor. The market is growing, and Saracen is taking every bit of that market allowed.
“Of the three casinos in Arkansas, two are located in the Little Rock area," said Matt Harkness. "This Central Arkansas section of the state has the highest population. Within six months of opening, Saracen has become the market leader in this region.”
"Saracen has made a great impact on me and my family, not only in the fact that I can support my family, but also because it allows me to be a role model within the community," expressed CJ Branch, a day one Slot Manager for Saracen Casino.
Another employee from the same department has worked her way up through hard work, grit, and determination.
"I started as a slot tech and three weeks later I was promoted. Six months after that, I received another promotion," said Latonya Davis
Saracen Development LLC. has also begun to bring other things to the community. A new station for Fire, EMS, and Law Enforcement in Pine Bluff, Ark. was recently funded by Quapaw Nation, living up to a promise previously made to help rebuild the community. While there are many more steps to take in that area, it's clear the community feels a renewed confidence in Saracen moving forward.
So what do the numbers tell us?
It was recently announced that two of the largest credit rating agencies in North America (Moody's and S&P) issued a credit rating increase for Saracen Casino and Resort. Both increases came on the same day, something not typically seen throughout the industry.
"We are thrilled two such respected credit rating agencies like Moody's and S&P saw the need to upgrade our rating on the same day. This rating upgrade sends a strong message that our Saracen gaming operation is performing well and confidence exists in our ability to service debt," declared Chairman Byrd. "Moody's and S&P based their decisions on factors like our handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the financial solvency of our business and our superiority in the Arkansas gaming market. This rating upgrade and the confidence it represents serves Quapaw Nation citizens well, along with the citizens of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. This is fantastic news as we continue to strengthen our partnerships within the community."
The credit rating from Moody's Investor Service saw an upgrade of Saracen’s Corporate Family Rating and the $285 million senior secured notes that are due in 2025 from a Caa1 to a B3. The Profitability of Default Rating increased to a B3-PD, up from a Caa1-PD.
The upgrade from S&P Global (S&P) shared a similar outlook. S&P upgraded their credit rating of Saracen from 'CCC' to a 'B-'while also improving the issue-level rating on Saracen's secured notes to a 'B-'as well. Both Moody's and S&P Global recognized Saracen operating above expectations in terms of EBITDA as reasons for the upgrades.
"A double credit rating upgrade on the same day by the world's two largest credit rating agencies is impressive on its own merits," said Baker. "But twin upgrades for a tribal entity is entirely unprecedented. The factors leading to the increased rating for Saracen from both Moody's and S&P indicate increased confidence in both our financial performance and outlook from the biggest and most respected financial institutions in the country. This rating increase is external validation of our dedicated efforts to eliminate debt and is confirmation of our increased ability to do so."
The full article and the rating increase reports can be found in the cited link at the end of this article, courtesy of globalnewswire.com.
Saracen might not have been blessed with the perfect time to open, and there's still plenty of construction projects to complete; however, the staff they've got is excellent and seems to have quite the team of leaders to back them up. Did we mention the food? Yes, the food is phenomenal also, we can't forget that. To sum it up, they're absolutely crushing expectations down at Saracen. Quapaw Nation has found another diamond in the rough, and she's starting to shine.
https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/09/23/2302553/0/en/Quapaw-Nation-s-Saracen-Casino-Resort-receives-credit-rating-upgrades-from-both-Moody-s-and-S-P-Global.html contributed to this article
The Associated Press contributed to this article
Joplin Globe contributed to this article
Indianz.com contributed to this article
Arkansas Democrat Gazette contributed to this article