With Arkansas voters earlier this month approving a full casino at Oaklawn Park and three other locations in the state, the Hot Springs track will waste no time in upgrading its facility.
Oaklawn announced Nov. 19 plans for an expansion project of more than $100 million that will include the construction of a high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center, a larger gaming area, and additional on-site parking.
The track said the project is one of the largest hospitality investments in the history of Arkansas. While Oaklawn will be moving from Instant Racing and games of skill to a full casino, Oaklwan Jockey Club president Louis Cella said it will retain its commitment to racing.
“This historic announcement represents a new chapter in the rich 114-year history of Oaklawn,” Cella said. “As we enhance the entertainment experience for our customers, we will also further elevate Thoroughbred racing and help make Arkansas and Hot Springs even stronger regional tourism destinations.”
In 2000 Oaklawn was the first Thoroughbred track to add historical racing—games that base results on previously run races and payouts on a pari-mutuel formula. Those games, called Instant Racing, as well as the later addition of games of skill, have helped the track increase its purses from $11.2 million in 2000 to $28.9 million this year.
Cella said the track already was planning infrastructure improvements before the Nov. 6 vote.
“While one may assume that today’s announcement comes in response to the passage of Issue 4 on Nov. 6, we actually began planning for this during our last expansion in 2014,” Cella said. “Our goal then, as it is now, is to use a quality gaming experience to enhance racing and help attract even more great champions to Arkansas such as Smarty Jones , Zenyatta, and American Pharoah .”
The expansion represents the second significant announcement at Oaklawn since Cella succeeded his late father, Charles, as president of Oaklawn Jockey Club last December. In April of this year, Oaklawn announced it will extend its racing season three weeks and for the first time will continue racing into May. It’s the biggest change in the traditional Oaklawn racing schedule since World War II.
As for the expansion, the yet-to-be-named hotel will be seven stories with 200 rooms, including two presidential suites. Amenities will include an outdoor swimming pool, luxury spa, fitness center, and a restaurant.
“The hotel will offer a unique vantage point for our patrons in that it will overlook the track. Imagine the spectacular view as the horses are heading down the stretch,” said Cella. “Our goal is to achieve 4-star status.”
Adjacent to the hotel will be a 14,000 square-foot multi-purpose events center that will accommodate up to 1,500 people for various events such as concerts, meetings, banquets, and weddings.
The project also includes the addition of approximately 28,000 square feet of gaming space and significantly expanded parking.
Construction on the project will begin in May immediately following completion of the 2019 racing season. The target completion date for the gaming expansion is January 2020 with the hotel and event center to be completed in late 2020.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the Oaklawn expansion will be monumental.
“The state of Arkansas is grateful to Louis and his family for their commitment to growing their business right here at home,” Hutchinson said in a track release. “This project, which will be financed exclusively with private funds, not only represents one of, if not the largest, tourism-related expansion projects in our history, it will also rank among the state’s largest economic development projects in 2019.”
Kane Webb, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, said the Oaklawn expansion will create more success stories for Arkansas’ thriving tourism industry.
“Hot Springs is already one of the top tourism destinations in the South,” Webb said in the track release. “This expansion will thrust Hot Springs into the category of the nation’s elite vacation and recreation locations.”
Cella said the development will create new partnership opportunities with the city of Hot Springs in that marketing efforts will be designed to complement those of the city’s. He said while various on-site amenities will be offered, Oaklawn will want guests to enjoy all that Hot Springs has to offer including Hot Springs National Park, lakes, hiking and biking trails, museums, restaurants, and shopping.
Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, said the events center and hotel rooms will be beneficial to Hot Springs and Arkansas.
“Oaklawn’s project will allow Hot Springs to attract more and larger meetings and conventions,” Arrison said in a release. “This creates exciting opportunities for Hot Springs tourism.”
As it has for two previous Oaklawn projects, HBG Design of Memphis is the architectural firm for the expansion. Flintco Construction, with an Arkansas headquarters located in Springdale, is the contractor on the project. The company estimates as many as 2,300 jobs will be created during the construction phase.