Arkansas Casino Bids for Russellville Pope County Begin, But Legal Questions Remain

Posted on: September 26, 2019, 09:15h. 

Last updated on: September 26, 2019, 11:12h.

The bidding for the Arkansas casino license reserved for Pope County is moving forward in Russellville, as the city announced it’s accepting development proposals until next Wednesday at noon, October 2.

Arkansas casino Pope County Russellville
Russellville locals don’t want a casino in their town, but local officials are nonetheless accepting bids from gaming operators. (Image: City of Russellville)

Arkansas voters passed Issue 4 during the November 2018 election. The ballot referendum gave authorization to the state’s two racetrack racinos to transition into full-scale commercial casinos. The constitutional amendment also earmarked a casino resort for both Pope and Jefferson counties.

The legal challenge boils down to Issue 4, including a mandate that before a casino can come to the two counties, the local county judge and mayor are required to write letter of support for the gaming property. The casino issue was unpopular in Pope – one of 11 counties out of 75 – where citizens voted against the amendment.

Concurrently, Pope residents passed a resolution stating its county judge is barred from writing a letter of support for the casino unless a majority support is cast for Issue 4. Russellville officials are hoping to sway support by moving forward with the casino bidding.

Legal Juggernaut

In June, the Arkansas Racing Commission rejected all five casino proposals received by Pope County, saying at the time that it didn’t possess the legal authority to approve one of the casinos due to inadequate constituent support.

Despite the state racing agency’s opinion, the Pope County Quorum Count – its city council – endorsed a casino plan from the Cherokee Nation Businesses last month.  

The original five bidders included Las Vegas-based Warner Gaming, which operates the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, as well as tribal casinos in Washington, New Mexico, and Iowa. Warner CEO Bill Warner says he will submit a casino scheme for Russellville before next week’s deadline, despite the county’s backing of the Cherokee plan.

We have reviewed the city’s request for proposals in detail,” Warner explained. “We’re impressed by the evaluation system and very pleased to be participating in a fair and transparent process.”

In Russellville’s request for proposal, the city said that “the review and evaluation is to assist the city in issuing its recommendation to the Pope County Quorum Court.”

Will of People

The Oaklawn and Southland tracks are now functioning as commercial casinos, with table games and slot machines. In Jefferson, the county and state Racing Commission has signed-off on a $350 million casino resort in Pine Bluff from the Quapaw Nation’s Downstream Development Authority.

Everything about Issue 4 is going as planned – except in Pope.

The ballot question passed with 54.1 percent statewide support. But in Pope, more than 60 percent of voters said they didn’t want a casino. No county was as adamantly opposed to the gaming proposition.

Russellville Mayor Richard Harris and Pope County Judge Ben Cross both stated during their campaigns they would not write a letter of support for the casino without the backing of their residents. While the county’s Quorum Court backed the Cherokee pitch, Harris didn’t lend his name.