Arkansas Casino License for Pope County Has New Timeline

Posted on: January 31, 2024, 01:43h. 

Last updated on: February 3, 2024, 12:34h.

The Arkansas casino license earmarked for Pope County will likely be issued before the end of the year. That’s according to an updated timeline on how the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) will field bids for the gaming opportunity and issue the state’s fourth and final commercial casino license.

Arkansas casino Pope County
Alex Lieblong, chair of the Arkansas Racing Commission, is consulted by state’s Deputy Attorney Doralee Chandler on how to go about considering new bids for the Pope County casino license. The Pope County casino concession remains unissued more than five years after state voters authorized its issuance. (Image: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The ARC on Tuesday formally adopted revised rules to its casino gaming protocols in considering applications and approving bids. The updated procedures came after commissioners were advised by counsel supplied by Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin’s (R) office.

The gaming and horse racing agency’s revisions first require the endorsement of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R). After she signs off on the framework, the conditions will move to the Legislative Council for review.

Once the Council issues its blessing, the ARC will be cleared to open a 30-day bidding period for casino developers interested in securing the Pope County casino concession.

How We Arrived Here

In 2018, Arkansans approved a statewide ballot referendum to allow a single casino in Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope counties.

Two of the licenses were allocated for the Southland and Oaklawn racino racetracks, respectively, located in Crittenden and Garland counties. Southland and Oaklawn have since opened Las Vegas-style casinos.

A third license was given to the Quapaw Nation, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma, but it had deep historical ties to Arkansas. The Quapaws partnered with government officials in Jefferson to open the Saracen Casino Resort.

The Pope license remains up for grabs more than five years after voters authorized the gaming license. Two bidders — the Cherokee Nation Businesses, the commercial unit of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership — have tied up the Pope license in court.

Commissioner Bias

The Pope County casino saga began in 2020 when a commissioner was found to have a bias in grading the Gulfside plan a perfect 100/100. He did so while giving the Cherokees’ bid just 29 points. Despite the scandal, the ARC’s rules required it to issue Gulfside the license within 30 days of the agency’s vote.

The Cherokees sued the state on the grounds that the ARC shouldn’t have even considered the Gulfside pitch to build a $254 million destination in Russellville called River Valley Casino Resort. In a case that reached the state Supreme Court, it was determined that Amendment 100 language necessitating a casino bid to have the support of the county judge or quorum court referred only to a sitting judge or quorum court, not a former judge or quorum court.

The Gulfside pitch included the endorsement of Pope County Judge Ed Gibson, who lent his support to the casino just days before he exited office in December 2018.

Lawsuits Continue

With the Arkansas Supreme Court invalidating the Gulfside pitch, the ARC deemed the Cherokees’ $300 million proposal, called Legends Resort & Casino — also targeting Russellville — the winner. Gulfside then sued the ARC because the Cherokee pitch also violated Amendment 100.

In another case that reached the state’s highest court, it was determined that the Cherokees violated the amendment by bidding as a consortium. The Cherokee Nation Businesses proposal included a newly formed entity called Legends Resort & Casino, LLC.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that Amendment 100 required the ARC to only consider bids from single entities that can demonstrate proficiency in running commercial casinos. Though the Legends LLC is fully controlled by the CNB, which has vast experience in gaming, the bid, including two entities, rendered it absolute.  

The ARC’s refreshed bidding rules for Pope County have not yet been made public.