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Dog days at Southland.

Besieged by Mississippi Casinos, West Memphis Greyhound Track Looks to Video Gaming to Even Odds

WHEN SPLASH CASINO opened last fall in Tunica, Miss., officials at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis were worried.

Now, they're scared.

Officials of the dog track say the casino is the reason for a dramatic downturn in daily pari-mutuel handle.

Splash is located on the Mississippi River about 35 miles south of West Memphis. Since it opened Oct. 20, the average daily betting handle at Southland has dropped about 20 percent, according to an economic impact study commissioned by Southland and released last week.

The study by economist James Metzger of Little Rock projects an additional 5-10 percent drop in daily betting handle at the track. The volatility of those figures depends largely on the opening of more riverboat casinos in Tunica and elsewhere in Mississippi.

In a bid to keep pace, Southland officials have persuaded Arkansas legislators to introduce a bill that would allow video poker machines to be put in at the track.

Tom Blayney, Southland vice president and general manager, says video gaming would help level the playing field with the Mississippi casino.

Something must be done, Southland officials believe. Blayney fears the novelty of riverboat gambling will not wear off, especially with Splash proposing to add a second riverboat.

"The history of pari-mutuel facilities competing against casinos is you lose at least 40 or 50 percent of your business," Blayney says.

He cites examples of dog and horse racing tracks in Wisconsin and Minnesota that have experienced just that.

Pat Magruder, chairman of the Southland Racing Corp., says the track's "core bettors are the people in downtown Memphis, and those are the people who are going down to Tunica."

Splash is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Magruder says there are always waiting lines, even on Sunday mornings, to get into the riverboat casino.

Meanwhile, Southland, which offers alternating day and night performances every day but Sunday, has seen its turnstiles slow significantly.

Southland is thought to be the state's No. 1 tourist attraction with about 1.5 million annual visitors.

Many of those visitors seem to have come down with casino fever.

The first riverboat casino in Mississippi opened last August. Six are now operating. Four more have been licensed and should be open by fall, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

About 60 casino operators have applied for permits, and about a dozen of those are eyeing the Tunica area, near the Arkansas-Mississippi border.

A Choctaw Indian tribe also has received the go-ahead to set up casino operations on sovereign land in Philadelphia, Miss., and neighboring Memphis, Tenn., is weighing the idea of riverboat gambling.

Blayney says it all adds up to a crisis situation for Southland.

And there's a lot at stake.

Metzger's study shows that Southland's fortunes are closely tied to those of Crittenden County and east Arkansas.

An average of 500 people were employed last year at the track, which had a payroll of $6.5 million.

Applying an economic multiplier, the study finds that as many as 1,000 area jobs are dependent on the track's prosperity and the park accounts for up to $13 million of the region's annual payroll.

State coffers also are dependent on Southland, which has paid about $200 million in taxes since opening in 1956.

Based on an analysis of average daily handle since Splash opened, the study projects state and local tax revenues generated by Southland this year could drop $1.7 million-$5 million from the $17 million paid in 1991. That was the last full year before Splash became a factor.

Southland is also a large funding source for local, regional and state charities. The track has donated almost $1 million each of the past two years. Programs that help youths, provide prenatal care and offer social services to the needy benefit from the track's annual "charity days."

With so much at stake, Southland officials say, they are lobbying for help from the state Legislature.

Blayney says in-house video poker machines would not be a "total answer" to the competition from casinos, but they would make it easier to compete.

"It's going to be a plus if the bill passes," he says. "I hope it will bring us back to a level playing field somewhat."

A Senate and House version of the bill is under consideration. Rep. Lloyd McCuiston of Crittenden County, a supporter of the House version, says some legislators would like to see the bill not restrict video gaming machines to Southland.

Other legislators oppose the bill as it is, fearing its passage would open the flood-gates to more gambling in Arkansas.

McCuiston says he's concerned about the shortfall of revenue the state would experience if Southland's handle stays permanently depressed.

During the current legislative session, new funding sources such as a soft drink tax already have been sought to cover spiraling Medicaid costs.

Mississippi Boost

Meanwhile, Mississippi is finding riverboat casinos may be a long-sought answer to its revenue problems.

"It's been a real economic benefit," says Sean McGuinness, compliance director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. McGuinness says the state views the casinos as an "economic development tool."

Mississippi is gambling that the casinos will spur development of more resort-type attractions, including hotels, golf courses and other entertainment outlets.

Mississippi expects to bring in at least $25 million in tax revenues from the casinos by the end of July, but McGuinness says that estimate might be low since the casinos have not yet experienced summer attendance.

About 1,000 people are employed on each riverboat, which have average payrolls of $5 million.

McGuinness gets weekly revenue reports from each casino -- information that's not public record by Mississippi law. But he says he has noticed a surprising trend.

"When a new boat opens, it doesn't have an adverse effect on another boat," he says. "In fact, their revenues keep increasing."

Southland officials are holding out hope that video gaming will have a similar effect on their revenues.

Magruder acknowledges he doesn't know if the machines will stop the drain, but he hopes they will help.

"We don't think we're knee-jerking," he says. "We're just doing everything we know to do now."
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Title Annotation:Southland Greyhound Park
Author:Martin, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 29, 1993
Words:1040
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