The History of Southland ParkSouthland Park Gaming and Racing, formerly known as Southland Greyhound Park, is a gambling and entertainment center in West Memphis, near the intersection of Interstates 55 and 40 (one of the most-traveled intersections in the nation).
Southland Park began as a dog track in 1956. It was the only gambling venue in the Mid-South region and drew visitors from several nearby states. The track offered pari-mutuel betting, a system common to horse racing as well as greyhound racing. West Memphis was one of only two Arkansas cities to allow pari-mutuel betting, the other being in Hot Springs. At its opening in 1956, Southland became Arkansas’ only greyhound racetrack. Originally owned by the Upton family and other individuals, Southland was purchased by Delaware North Companies, Inc., based in Buffalo, New York, in the early 1970s.
At its mid-century high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country. Through the 1960s, 1970s, and into the1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full, with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland.
All that changed in 1992. To spur their local economy, residents of the nearby Tunica County, Mississippi, area approved riverboat gambling. They welcomed gaming establishments in the early 1990s as long as the casinos could show that they were at least in part physically housed on the Mississippi River. Large, nationally known resort-casinos mushroomed around Tunica until it became the third-largest gambling venue in the country, after Las Vegas, Nevada, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, drawing gamblers away from Southland. Southland fell on hard times, with daily attendance ebbing to about 500. Its annual revenues dropped from more than $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.
In 2005, however, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 1151. It permitted racing tracks in the state to install "games of skill," such as blackjack and poker or their video counterparts, if approved by their city or county. A majority of more than sixty percent of voters in West Memphis approved permitting such games at Southland. In the latter part of 2006, a renovation costing about $40 million was undertaken to accommodate increased crowds. The renovations included a new main entrance, a new 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 65,500-square-foot racing floor, a 400-seat event center, a 150-seat nightclub, and a 280-seat buffet with three themed cooking areas. Other on-site restaurants—Quinn & Ella’s, the Kennel Club, and Bourbon Street Steakhouse & Grill—also made it a dining destination.
Southland has since seen an increased turnout, with employment and profits almost doubling the pre-expansion figures. Since 1990, the property has contributed more than $18 million from pari-mutuel racing to public agencies and private, nonprofit organizations including the Boys and Girls Club, American Cancer Society, Muscular Dystrophy, American Legion, American Heart Association, Crittenden Arts Council, and Pathfinders, Inc. Additional revenue goes to award purses, the Arkansas Breeders Awards program, and the Southland Park Community Foundation, which helps fund local scholarships and charities.