Arkansas Casino Conflict Has Pope County Officials Going Against Voters’ Wishes on $250M Project

Posted on: January 2, 2019, 06:33h. 

Last updated on: January 2, 2019, 06:33h.

An outgoing judge in Pope County, Arkansas may have signed off on plans to build a new $250 million casino, but the man who is taking his seat calls the approval “appalling.”

arkansas casino
Plans for a new casino in Pope County have already been drawn up. (Image: Fox 16)

In a letter to the Arkansas Racing Commission, outgoing county judge Jim Ed Gibson laid out his support for the plan which would see the Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership build a three-phase casino resort in the city of Russellville.

“This project will create more than 1,500 new jobs and generate millions of dollars in taxes,” Gulfside co-owner Terry Green said in a news release, “improving the county’s infrastructure and its overall quality of life.”

As recently as a few weeks ago, the odds of the casino getting built seemed long. Now, not only has Judge Gibson since signed off, but Russellville mayor Randy Horton has also penned a memo of support for the gaming facility.

The letters come a month after state voters approved new casino licenses in Jefferson and Pope Counties, while also giving the green light for licenses at existing racetracks in two other counties.

However, the amendment calls for local leaders to give approval on any casino licenses. And while it may have passed at the state level, it was rejected in Pope County by a 60-40% vote.

Lame Duck Endorsement

The problem for some in Pope County is that the casino approval comes from an official who is no longer in power.

Judge Gibson penned his letter on December 28, days before he left office. Judge-elect Ben Cross took over the seat on January 1, and he doesn’t exactly have the same view on the casino as his predecessor.

“It is with great discouragement and dismay to have learned of the actions of the current county judge in regards to the casino issue,” Cross told KATV News. “To have a lame duck official act in total disregard to the express wishes of the residents of Pope County is appalling and a complete affront to our representative democracy,” 

Cross is promising to represent the wishes of the majority of local voters who are against the casino amendment.

Putting the Cart Ahead of the Horse? 

It means a legal battle is looming in Pope County, although that hasn’t stopped developers from putting up a website which promises a fall 2020 opening for the casino.

But that casino opening is not a given. There are many questions that still must be answered first:

  • Does Judge Gibson’s approval mean anything when he’s out of office?
  • Can Judge Cross do anything to overturn the approval?
  • Will a local ordinance in Pope County requiring a vote for any casino approval come into play?

On the last point, lawyers for Gulfside insist that the state constitution “clearly supersedes” any local ordinances.