Arkansas Casino Opponents Campaign to Eliminate Pope County License

Posted on: October 26, 2021, 12:44h. 

Last updated on: October 26, 2021, 11:33h.

Arkansas legalized commercial gambling by way of a statewide ballot referendum during the November 2018 election. Nearly three years later, one of the four counties afforded casino privileges is seemingly nowhere close to issuing the permit to an interested developer.

Arkansas casino Pope County
Fair Play for Arkansas wants to repeal a 2018 statewide vote that allows a casino to be built in Pope County. Local county voters rejected the question during the election. (Image: Fair Play for Arkansas)

Gambling opponents in Arkansas believe they have a solution — annul the gaming license allocated for Pope County. Fair Play for Arkansas is the committee behind the effort.

Pope County citizens don’t want a casino,” Fair Play for Arkansas said in a Facebook post last week.

The social media comment followed the Arkansas Supreme Court throwing more legal confusion into the chaos surrounding which of two resort proposals should be granted the Pope County casino rights.

Two Judges, One Casino

The 2018 ballot gaming question asked Arkansans if they wished to allow the two pari-mutuel racinos in Garland and Crittenden counties to transition into full-scale casinos with slot machines and table games. The referendum additionally authorized two new gaming resorts in Pope and Jefferson counties.

Arkansans passed Issue 4 by a vote of 54.1 percent to 45.9 percent. Today, slots, table games, and sportsbooks are running at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort and Southland Casino — the two former racinos — plus, in Jefferson, at the Saracen Casino Resort.

Jefferson County officials selected the Downstream Development Authority as its casino partner. Downstream is a subsidiary of the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma and owns Saracen.

Arkansas’ gaming law for the Pope and Jefferson licenses required support from the county’s sitting judge.

In late 2018, then-Pope County Judge Ed Gibson signed off on a casino pitch from Gulfside Casino Partnership, an LLC controlled by two Mississippi riverboat businessmen. But after Gibson’s term expired at the end of 2018, new Pope County Judge Ben Cross backed another casino pitch from the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), which is owned by Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation.

The Gulfside pitch is a $254 million undertaking that would include a 500-room hotel and 80,000-square-foot casino with 1,900 slot machines and 90 table games. The Cherokee plan is a $225 million investment featuring a 200-room hotel and 50,000-square-foot casino with 1,200 slots and 32 table games.

Judges have differed on which plan should win the Pope County license. That lead to the Arkansas Supreme Court last week opining that only the CNB plan is valid, as it has the endorsement of the current sitting county judge.

The Arkansas Racing Commission, which was originally tasked with determining which pitch should be deemed the winner, added more drama to the saga when it was determined that one of its commissioners — Butch Rice — had a bias in grading the Gulfside pitch a perfect 100/100, but only 29/100 points for CNB.

Locals Oppose, State Supports

A majority of Arkansans in 2018 signed off on bringing commercial casinos to the state. But locally, Pope County residents soundly rejected the gambling motion.

Of the 75 counties in Arkansas, only 11 rejected the gaming issue. One was Pope, where nearly 61 percent of voters said they did not support legalizing gambling. None of the 10 other counties that voted against the referendum did so as strongly as Pope voters.

Regardless, Pope County was written into the Arkansas Constitution as one of four counties where gambling is legal.

“We deserve what 71 other counties in Arkansas enjoy: the freedom to live without a controversial gambling development forced on us,” Fair Play declared. The organization is collecting signatures in hopes of passing another amendment that would remove Pope County from being permitted casino gambling.