Bidding for Arkansas’ Pope County Casino to Begin, Only One Applicant Stands to Qualify

Posted on: May 7, 2024, 08:15h. 

Last updated on: May 7, 2024, 08:44h.

The Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) will soon open a third bidding period for the sole gaming license earmarked for Pope County.

Arkansas casino Pope County Cherokee Gulfside
The Arkansas Racing Commission is seen on May 6 voting to schedule a third bidding round for the Pope County casino license. Two bids are expected for the gaming opportunity. (Image: CBS11)

Arkansas voters authorized Las Vegas-style casinos in four counties through a statewide referendum in 2018. Casinos have since opened in Crittenden (Southland Casino in West Memphis), Garland (Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs), and Jefferson (Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff).

The Pope County concession remains unissued nearly six years after it was authorized. ARC says beginning this Sunday, May 12, the application window for the casino license will open for a third time after the first two rounds ended in legal bedlam.

It’s expected that the same two entities that have been battling for the concession for several years will remain the exclusive bidders. Those entities are the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), the commercial conglomerate of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Gulfside Casino Partnership, a Mississippi-based gaming firm.

Court Approvals Critical

The 2018 amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to allow commercial casino gambling with slot machines, live dealer table games, and sports betting requires that gaming applicants only qualify for consideration by ARC with a letter of support from the sitting county judge or quorum court in the county the applicant is seeking to operate.

The county judge/quorum court component of the bidding process was the culprit for the first Pope County bidding round ending without the license being allocated. ARC had initially voted to give to license to Gulfside, but CNB sued the state and won after courts determined that the company’s plan — River Valley Casino Resort — had only secured a letter of support from a former Pope County judge, not the sitting judge.

Current Pope County Judge Ben Cross has lent his support to CNB. The sitting Pope County Quorum Court last year also passed a resolution endorsing the Cherokee plan called Legends Resort & Casino.

Both River Valley and Legends are targeting Russellville.

Having obtained the exclusive support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross as required … and a resolution of support from the Pope County Quorum Court, we anticipate being the sole qualified applicant,” said Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garrett. “We look forward to standing before the Arkansas Racing Commission where we will demonstrate our more than 30 years of experience in gaming and hospitality, as well as our plans for Legends Resort & Casino to be built in Russellville.”

Gulfside thinks the quorum court might be willing to also issue it a letter of support.

“We look forward to presenting our proposal to the Pope County Quorum Court and seeking a resolution of support,” said Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry.

Bidding Period

ARC commissioners plan to conclude the Pope County casino bidding period on June 11. After that, commissioners will review the applicants and vote on which will move forward with the license.

CNB will apply as a single entity as opposed to its previous bid, which Arkansas courts deemed invalid because of its application including more than one entity. The Arkansas Supreme Court in January ruled that the Cherokee bid was invalid because the company applied in conjunction with a newly formed entity called Legends Resort & Casino, LLC.

The bidding rules require that companies bid individually, not collectively. Applying companies must also be able to demonstrate gaming experience, something the Legends LLC cannot.

Referendum Progresses 

While ARC moves forward with opening a third bidding round for the Pope County license, a citizen-led grassroots campaign is seeking to annul the gaming opportunity through another statewide referendum. Voters in Charge, a ballot question committee, continues to canvass voters to support an effort to repeal Pope County’s gaming opportunity.

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin approved the campaign’s ballot wording in March. The initiative now must secure, submit to Griffin’s office, and have at least 90,704 signatures validated for the question to land on the November 5 ballot.

If a simple majority votes in favor of rescinding Pope County’s designation for a casino, ARC’s third bidding round would be much ado about nothing.