It makes sense that Carlton Saffa, Saracen Casino Resort’s chief market officer, feels like he’s hit the occupational jackpot. Still under 40 — he reaches that milestone in December — Saffa was the first Saracen employee when hired in 2019.
A self-described action junkie and casino gaming lover, he presided over Saracen’s rise from drawing board to reality. A couple of years now into his dream job, Saracen’s $350 million phase 1 — the largest one-time tourism investment ever in Arkansas — presides over the former soybean fields on the southern edge of Pine Bluff, where the timber meets the Delta.
“I’ve always loved casino gaming,” Saffa told Arkansas Money & Politics. “My father is a heck of a poker player, though I’ve never had the patience to play with the discipline this game requires. Coincidentally, Casino, released in 1995, has been my favorite movie since I saw it as a teenager. I remember reading Nicholas Pileggi’s book in a weekend while a high school kid.”
Still, Saffa never saw himself in the business, much less serving as the face of the state’s first purpose-built casino. The historical aspect of his post is fitting. A chancellor’s scholarship from the University of Arkansas lured him to Fayetteville from southwestern Oklahoma, and an interest in state history and politics helped keep him here.
But the road to Saracen was a winding one.
“College debate and politics were more fulfilling to me than the classroom,” he said. “Debate taught me to be quick on my feet, and the University of Arkansas had an incredible program. My coach, Dr. Steve Smith, is still a mentor to me today, and under his leadership, we won a national championship in parliamentary debate. I also fell in love with the wonderful peculiarities of Arkansas history and politics while in school, largely through a series of chance meetings that turned into longtime friendships.
“Both debate and politics led to the next steps in my life. I spent over a decade in the insurance business, working for a publicly traded carrier, and though I managed folks in several states, my first love was the act of selling. I think it was because I loved the so-called action and loved a chance to be quick on my feet. The insurance business was one my father had had success in, and an opportunity to earn a good living meant I could grow up and get married to the girl I loved.”
The election of Asa Hutchinson as governor in November 2014 represented an unexpected diversion for Saffa. But it was one that would afford him the chance to monitor the state’s political temperature, and it would serve him well.
“In 2015, a man I knew as a friend, Asa Hutchinson, took over as governor, and I was honored that he invited me to work for him in the Capitol. I spent almost five years working for the governor on his key legislative issues and being a daily go-between from his office to a number of important state agencies. It was an incredible experience.”
When John Berrey, then chairman of the Quapaw Nation, and Don Tilton, the tribe’s longtime Arkansas lobbyist, approached him about working for Saracen, Saffa said he was fascinated at the prospect.
“They handled it the right way. Don spoke to the governor about poaching a member of his staff, so the governor knew their interest a few hours before I did,” Saffa said. “I jumped at the opportunity, immediately provided notifications to avoid any conflicts of interest, gave my notice, and within weeks was at work in Pine Bluff. This was early June 2019 and technically speaking, I was Saracen Development’s first employee. At this point, we had nothing more than a small office in downtown Pine Bluff. We didn’t even have a casino license at this point.
“As you have probably noticed, I’m an action junkie, and I can’t imagine doing anything else at this stage of my life. I was honored to play a very small part in Gov. Hutchinson’s many successes and am personally proud that every bill I ever worked for him passed. That being said, as busy as the State Capitol is, for me a slow day at Saracen has many more moving parts than a fast day at the Capitol.”
And things have been busy for Saffa and his Saracen colleagues. Even before the casino proper opened in October 2020, the Saracen casino annex was a hit with its 300 slots. Opened in September 2019, not long after Saffa was hired, the annex pulled in almost $45 million in wagers the month before the official opening.
Phase 1 of the project entails the full 220,000-square-foot casino with an 80,000-square-foot gambling floor; 2,100 slots and 30 gaming tables; a separate poker room; a sportsbook; and seven restaurants including the higher-end Red Oak Steakhouse. Phase 2, under construction and still on track for a late 2021 opening, Saffa says, will include a 300-room hotel with more restaurants, a conference center, lounges, a spa as well as a museum and cultural center.
Despite launching as a pandemic raged, Saracen still enjoyed a big opening run. It pulled in $40 million in wagers for the 11 days the full casino was open in October, according to state figures. And that total rises to more than $84 million when accounting for the annex. For just those first 11 days, Saracen paid out almost $79 million in winnings and almost $810,000 in taxes.
“Opening day was huge, but there is no doubt that without COVID, it would have been much bigger,” Saffa said. “Our opening day was our biggest day for several months, but then came April. We reset our best day several times in April alone and have continued to raise that bar since.”
Just getting to opening day was its own challenge, he said.
“Building this place required a monumental effort and an incredible amount of material. Getting everything needed shipped to Arkansas in the midst of a world-wide pandemic was every bit of the supply-chain struggle you could imagine. Even today, we face challenges with disruptions from vendors, ranging from certain types of alcohol to booth manufacturers, in order to finish out some of our restaurant spaces.”
To date, Saracen has paid roughly $18 million in local, county and state taxes. (The casino pays between 13 and 20 percent each month based on how much it nets.) For the fiscal year 2021, casino gaming and sports-wagering revenue at the state’s three casinos topped $69 million.
The state’s first purpose-built casino, Saracen is averaging around 150,000 patrons per month. (Plexiglass barriers remain in place and will stay up as long as the Delta variant continues to surge, Saffa said.) Saracen patrons represent all demographics, but slots tend to skew female, while tables games and sports betting lean male, as they do industry wide. And most all patrons are coming from greater Little Rock, Saffa said.
“With our proximity, only 40 minutes away, that makes sense.”
Not only has Saracen provided Pine Bluff with much needed windfall, it has also infused the community with some much-needed energy. Decades of declining population and industry took a toll.
Fifty years ago, Pine Bluff was considered by most Arkansans to be the state’s No. 3 city in terms of prominence behind Little Rock and Fort Smith. Entertainers as big in name as Bob Hope and the king himself, Elvis Presley, played the Pine Bluff Convention Center in the mid-’70s.
But as technology made agriculture a game in need of fewer players, jobs in other industries and other cities slowly but steadily siphoned the city’s population. Pine Bluff dropped from a 1970 peak of roughly 57,400 to an estimate of 41,400, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
No one expects Saracen to return residents to Pine Bluff by the thousands, but the impact seen so far on the city and region is encouraging. The city is a destination once again.
Allison Thompson, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, is eager to brag on Saracen, noting not only its aesthetics and quality food but its willingness to be a community partner. And of course, the taxes it pays and the jobs it offers — more than 1,000 needed for construction alone.
“I don’t see that changing in the future,” she said.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington extolled the casino’s positive economic impact. As Saracen opened back up to full capacity this spring, the city’s unemployment rate fell from 7.2 percent in January to 6.3 percent in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — thanks in large part to jobs tied directly and otherwise to Saracen. Currently, more than 900 of a planned 1,100 local workers are on the job at the resort.
“The casino has been an exciting addition to Pine Bluff, drawing visitors from around Arkansas and across the country,” Washington said. “The overwhelming response from customers has been positive. And economically, the city of Pine Bluff has been benefiting from increased revenue garnered by the casino environment, which we are focused on managing and investing responsibly. Jobs have also been created, with many people moving into the county to pursue opportunities at the casino.”
Washington said she eagerly awaits the influx of even more visitors once the hotel is complete. With public and private downtown-revitalization efforts underway in Pine Bluff, the casino’s influx of tax revenue and visitors has bolstered the sense of momentum felt around town.
“Pine Bluff has become a place of growth because of developments like the casino,” Washington said. “We remain committed to strengthening our relationships with community partners such as the Quapaw Tribe as we work to sustain and build upon this growth.”
It all comes back to the Quapaws and their return to the tribe’s historic homeland.
“Beginning literally at the little rock in Little Rock (la petite roche) and heading southeast, this region was home to the Quapaw people until the federal government removed the tribe,” Saffa said. “The Quapaw name is all around us in Arkansas, if you only look. The Governor’s Mansion sits in the Quapaw Quarter. The Boy Scouts here are known as the Quapaw Area Council. And on and on. The decision to return to the region, and in a big way, is a source of pride for the Quapaw people.”
Saracen represents the tribe’s third casino venture, all of them — so far — successful ones. (Arkansans exposed to almost any form of media likely are familiar with the tribe’s pre-Saracen jewel, Downstream Casino Resort, located a few miles west of Joplin almost exactly on the Oklahoma-Kansas-Missouri state lines. To get there, one exits I-44 in Missouri, parks in Kansas and enters a building located in Oklahoma.)
So, just what is it that makes the tribe so good at building and running these venues?
“The Quapaw Nation is a relatively small tribe, technically speaking. With several thousand members, the tribe is much smaller than other tribes that might come to mind,” Saffa said. “But despite its relatively small size, the tribe has a reputation for doing things right. Vertically integrated hospitality components like our own coffee, microbrewery, cattle, bison and even honey speak to Quapaw quality and level of commitment to a world-class experience in operations.”
Small but efficient, the tribe has built a reputation for quality, especially in its food offerings. Saffa said the food at Saracen represents a destination in its own right. And it sets Saracen apart, he insists.
“We lead with food. All casinos have access to the same slot machines, and blackjack means 21 everywhere. Things like food are differentiators,” he said. “I am now comfortable saying we have built the best restaurant in Arkansas. If Lee Richardson was still cooking at Ashley’s, I wouldn’t be so confident, but without him in play I know we’re there. Our digital folks tell us that Saracen over-indexes website interest on food and beverage, and that makes me smile.
“To fully appreciate what we have in this building, you have to see it. If it’s a microbrewery or a steakhouse or a slot machine that gets you here, it’s all a win to us. As for the steak, specifically we serve prime, dry-aged prime and A5 Kobe beef. We’re proud, for us and for our state, that Red Oak is the only restaurant in the southern United States to be Kobe-certified by the Japanese Kobe Beef Council.”
Culture, of course, is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. As recently as 10 years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine marijuana or casino gambling in any form or capacity being legal in Arkansas. But here we are.
How does Saffa respond to the argument that casinos can deliver a long-term net loss for communities? After all, they potentially promote excessive drinking, problem gambling, fiduciary irresponsibility…
Saffa responds: “A casino is, at its core, a business for disposable income. We are also a massive job creator. Realistically, venues for drinking and gambling have long existed (legally and illegally) in the state, but Saracen means something positive. Jobs and massive tax revenue come from these areas. We are serious about monitoring for problem gambling; it and money laundering training are two items that 100 percent of our gaming employees are trained on.
“The fear of the unknown is real. Once we opened and began employing locals, then Saracen became familiar to Pine Bluff. It became a place where a friend or family member worked. And once folks saw what we’d built, an 80,000-square-foot building that looks like something from the Vegas strip, it felt like we had full buy-in.
“Jefferson County voters supported the measure that legalized casino gaming, and naysayers are few and far between. We employ about 600 Jefferson County residents and send millions in revenue to city and county governments here.”
Unlike other proposed casino projects in the state, the entire planning process for Saracen went off without a hitch. Saffa praised the leadership of current Quapaw Chairman Joseph Byrd, Secretary/Treasurer Guy Barker, Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson, Saracen General Manager Matt Harkness, Saracen CFO Jim Burns, Washington and Tilton. And he thinks Saracen is perfectly situated for long-term success in a city of almost 50,000 on the edge of the state’s largest metro.
“The casino has been a source of pride for Pine Bluff,” he said. “An investment of this size would be news in any city or town in America, so $300 million-plus in Pine Bluff was and is exciting. Today Saracen has about 900 employees, and we’re still growing. We set out to employ Jefferson County and entertain Arkansas, and I believe we are doing just that.”
As for what’s next, the casino still has “a few things cooking,” Saffa said.
“We’ve been at work acquiring a museum-quality art collection for Red Oak Steakhouse, and it as well as a number of other venues around the property will soon see a significant interior upgrade. And of course, the hotel planning is progressing at a fast pace, with meetings occurring on financing and design happening almost daily.
“And of course, the hotel planning is progressing at a fast pace, with meetings occurring on financing and design happening almost daily.”