Gambling Opportunities Growing For Northwest Arkansans

Free Weekly Staff

The 30-something couple walked into the casino for breakfast dressed in jeans, fitted plaid shirts and tennis shoes. They looked like they could have been headed to a music festival, but there was that telltale sign … the shopping bag from French shoe designer Christian Louboutin that carried the shoes that she would wear to the casino that night. This was Las Vegas. Here in the Ozarks things are different. Tennis shoes have long been the footwear of choice for a night at the casino. But things are changing.

It used to be that to enjoy a little gaming, Northwest Arkansas residents had to fork over some big bucks to get to Vegas. Then came Tunica, the Mississippi town just south of Memphis. But Tunica is a 51?2-hour drive, which means an overnight trip. Then casinos started popping up in Indian Territory in Oklahoma only an hour or two from NWA.

Most of these Indian-owned casinos were originally housed in small metal buildings with low ceilings, no windows, lots of cigarette smoke and with food options from vending machines. The people who were there were there for one reason: to play the slots.

But in the last year or two, some of these casinos have morphed into multimillion dollar architectural masterpieces with table games and restaurants with impressive wine lists. They promise locals a taste of Las Vegas in their own backyard.

They have state of the art slots, blackjack, high stakes gaming rooms, food grilles, buffets and upscale steakhouses and high-rise hotels and golf courses are becoming part of the package.

Although the clientele is not generally the well-manicured Vegas crowd that local TV commercials would cause you to expect, you can catch a live music show, get a good meal and feel like a high roller. The hardcore gamblers who once packed the stuffy metal buildings are now joined by those seeking some entertainment, a tasty steak dinner and a chance to win some cash. Oklahoma casinos have entered a new world.

“It has been a tremendous year for Cherokee Nation Entertainment,” said David Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment, which operates Cherokee Casinos and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. “We not only opened a new casino in West Siloam Springs, but we’re building a seven-story hotel tower that will make it a must-visit destination. In Tulsa, we re-branded our flagship property and transformed the property into the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa with the addition of a 19-story hotel tower and multiple new entertainment venues.”

But the new fancy casinos are not all that has changed for Arkansas gamblers.

Arkansas has long been a wasteland for gamblers, and although there are still no casinos within the state line, Arkansas is getting with the game.

Just weeks ago the first scratch-and-win lottery tickets were sold in the new Arkansas Lottery, and on Oct. 31, Arkansans will be able to toss their bucks into the Powerball pot. The days of taking the hour drive to Missouri to buy lottery tickets are over.

And for many gamblers, driving to Tunica for a Vegas style experience is over. As Oklahoma casinos have stepped up their game by offering more amenities, they are keeping players closer to home.

But unlike Vegas and Tunica, most of the Oklahoma casinos are not clustered in one general area.

Now some of the sites and sounds of Vegas can be experienced as a day trip to the Oklahoma casinos, which are some of the largest structures built in the Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri corner in the last few years.

Since it opened about a year ago, Downstream Casino near Joplin, Mo., estimates it has drawn 1.8 million visitors, with 65 percent coming from outside the Joplin area.

Several of these “new world” casinos have live entertainment. This has been a boost for NWA bands that regularly play Downstream, Cherokee in West Siloam Springs and even the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa in Catoosa.

Joe Giles and The Homewreckers is one of those bands.

“We play on a regular basis at Downstream Casino and really enjoy it,” Giles said. “The atmosphere is much more business-like, the venue much more sophisticated, and the audience often a bit more urbane … within reason. It is still a Midwestern casino after all.”

The casinos are also bringing in national acts that usually “fly-over” this part of the country. This summer, Cherokee Casino in West Siloam Springs brought in Presidents of the United States, Zydeco band Chubby Carrier, Junior Brown and Voyager. Foghat is scheduled for Oct. 24.

Downstream brought in Gretchen Wilson, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Kenny Rogers and the Beach Boys. Jewel will play there Nov. 8.

“Live music is an important added amenity here at Downstream,” said Sean Harrison, a spokesman for the casino. “It makes a party in the casino. The concerts serve to create a whole night of entertainment, the show, the restaurants, the casino action.”

While the casinos continue to come up with ways to draw in crowds, they are also drawing in the revenue.

According to the Web site,, while government revenue generated by Indian gaming is down nationwide, Oklahoma has continued to grow in revenue from $2.3 million in 2005, to $81 mil-lion in 2008 to $106 million so far this year. 500 Nations reported that Oklahoma state treasurer Scott Meacham said that Indian gaming has been so successful that it may be pulling lottery revenue down.

The Free Weekly made a visit to some of the nearby casinos.Here’s what we found.

First, if you’re expecting to play the slots and feel the quarters run through your fingers when you hit the jackpot, forget it. Today’s slots shoot out paper printouts, like a receipt you get at the gas pump. It’s not as fun as it used to be, but that’s the way it is.


Interior of the Cherokee Casino in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

Cherokee Casino West Siloam Springs

In 1994, an old bingo hall in a nondescript metal building on U.S. 412 in West Siloam Springs, Okla., was purchased by the Cherokee Tribe. That building was demolished shortly after a new $125 million casino opened last November. Ground was broken last month on a 103,000-square-foot hotel that is scheduled to open next spring. When completed, it will be the tallest building between Springdale and Tulsa on U.S. 412.

Located 45 minutes from downtown Fayetteville, the casino has a Native American theme with features such as stained glass and waterfalls. There are 1,275 electronic games, 19 table games and a 12-table poker room. There’s free live music and a dance floor at the 240-seat bar, Seven.

Dining options include the upscale Flint Creek Steakhouse, the extensive River Cane Buffet and the 24-hour River Cane Café. A 500-seat banquet room is scheduled to open this month.


Hotel Foyer at the Hard Rock Hotel in Catoosa, Okla.

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

Approximaely an hour and 45 minutes from Fayetteville, off I-44 in Catoosa, Okla., just east of Tulsa, is the Cherokee Nation Entertainment’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Formerly known as the Cherokee Nation Casino & Resort, the casino became the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in August after a $155 million expansion. You’ll find rock costumes worn by the likes of Elvis, Madonna and Beyonce and the Hard Rock store with music themed merchandise. There are 2,300 electronic games, plus poker and black jack and a19-story hotel. There are five music stages and five restaurants including the upscale steakhouse, McGill’s on 19 on the top floor of the hotel. There’s also the recently redesigned Cherokee Hills Golf Course.

Hard Rock is the third-largest casino in Oklahoma, behind Winstar Casino near Oklahoma City and the 300,000-square-foot River Sprit Casino in Tulsa.


Downstream Casino Resort near Joplin, Mo.

Downstream Casino Resort

The fifth-largest casino in Oklahoma is about 11?2 hours from Fayetteville. Located four miles from Joplin, Mo., you can see the rainbow lights of the 12-story hotel from I-44 at night. The Quapaw Tribe’s casino promises “the Las Vegas experience” and is setting the bar with the Red Oak Steakhouse, the Spring River Buffet and the Buffalo Grille, which offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The former Loma Linda Country Club golf course is part of the offerings. Different areas of the facility are located in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas.


Spun cable light fixture above the Devil’s Promenade bar

in the center of the Downstream Casino gaming floor

Downstream has three music venues including the 6,000-seat outdoor facility, The Venue, the new 1,000-seat Pavilion that, with the flip of a switch, can open to the outdoors and Legends Sports Bar on the gaming floor.

The casino has a 70,000-square-foot gaming floor, 2,000 electronic games, 30 table games, a 14-table poker room and high-limit game and slot rooms.

Miami Casinos

The largest cluster of nearby casinos can be found about two hours away in the Miami, Okla., area. Although there are several casinos, they are spread out and not at all the same set up as Tunica.

Buffalo Run Casino

You can see the fabric structure of Buffalo Run from I-44. There’s a huge parking lot — large enough to warrant a casino shuttle — and inside, an entryway with chandeliers and eye-catching architectural elements. There’s also a two-story hotel and a theater that features live music. Scheduled for this month are Jack Ingram on Oct. 23 and Cross Canadian Ragweed on Oct. 29.

The Stables Casino

Near historic downtown Miami, The Stables is designed to look like a barn on the outside and inside it’s fairly simple. There are 400 elec-tronic games on the main floor and blackjack and a lounge upstairs. There’s also an off-track betting parlor. The casino has a neighborhood feel and the restaurant serves lunch and dinner.

High Winds Casino

A bit of a drive down a two-lane highway from Miami, High Winds has an impressive entrance, a restaurant and lounge. The blue theme is attractive and the casino is spotlessly clean. The noise level is fairly high with machine sounds that parlay the message that they’re paying off.

Miami Tribal Entertainment

Just off I-44, this small casino looks like it’s housed in an old restaurant. This is the home of the Miami Tribe administrative offices and is the oldest casino in town. It’s a tight venue with a long hallway and rooms with slots off to the sides. There’s no alcohol and when we visited, the dining room was closed.

Peoria Gaming Center

Peoria Gaming is another old school casino, with just the basics. Four modular structures are lined up and look like they could be a storage unit. It’s small, but clean with a snack bar, but no alcohol. The night we visited, there were only a few people and some of the machines were out of order.

Quapaw Casino

Quapaw Casino is another old school casino. East of Miami on a two-lane highway, the casino is in a metal building. It’s small and a fairly quiet casino and has a snack bar and alcohol.

As a final note, with the entry of the low-cost Allegiant Airlines into the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport this summer, NWA gamblers have also started filling planes for a few days in Vegas. The airline has scheduled flights to Vegas twice a week with advertised fares of around $160 roundtrip.

Categories: Features