Considered worthless, this sandy stretch of riverbank was left out of the allotments for individual members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. So the tribe itself has been stuck with ownership of it since the late 1830s.
In the 20th century, Riverside Drive cut through the area south of 81st Street and trapped the property against the Arkansas River, leaving an overgrown and mostly inaccessible shoreline, known to the tribe as the old Mackey Sandbar.
“Well, it worked out pretty well for us in the long run,” said Jerry Floyd, shrugging Wednesday morning as he stood on the top level of a massive parking garage, where he could look out across the sprawling River Spirit Casino. “Today, this is probably the most valuable piece of real estate in Oklahoma.”
Inside the city limits of the state’s two largest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, this is the one and only tribal site where casino gambling is legal.
And that’s why this “worthless” little sandbar has become the tribe’s biggest asset.
“And it’s getting bigger,” said Floyd, the casino’s general manager.
Literally. From where he was standing, he could watch the property grow bigger by the minute.
Bulldozers, back hoes and gigantic dump trucks are moving 350,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, extending the riverbank several feet to the west and erasing 175 years of erosion. The shoreline, when the work is finished, will be close to where it probably was when the Creek Nation originally settled here in the early 19th century, Floyd said.
By March, when construction cranes will rise along the river to begin building the new Margaritaville casino and hotel, the Mackey Sandbar will be more than 13 acres bigger.
Construction finally began in early November after several months of delays as the tribe waited for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had to approve changes to the river bed.
Expected to open near the end of 2016, the project will create “two casinos in one,” with the existing River Spirit connected to the new Margaritaville, each with a distinctive decor and atmosphere. But Creek officials describe it not just as a casino but as a “resort destination,” with retail shops, convention space and a 3,000-seat entertainment venue.
A 27-story hotel, with 483 rooms and suites, will become a new landmark in south Tulsa. And the entire complex will add 800 full-time jobs while pumping $135 million a year into the local economy.
Tucked behind the existing casino, Margaritaville will face the river and have a beach theme, complete with a pool deck, cabanas and even palm trees. The dirt work alone will cost $20 million, with total construction reaching $329 million. Add architectural and engineering work, along with other incidental expenses, and the price tag will hit $365 million.
A few weeks ago, tribal officials had a meeting with construction executives.
“And they told us something,” said Pat Crofts, the chief executive officer of Creek Nation Casinos, who was still beaming with pride as he remembered it. “They told us this is the second-largest construction project in the history of the state of Oklahoma.”
The largest, by dollar figure, was the $750 million Devon Tower, which dominates the Oklahoma City skyline.
“There have been other places added onto again and again,” Crofts said, “but not done all at once like this. This is really like nothing that’s been done before, certainly not in Tulsa.”
Not bad, for a worthless little sandbar.