Pope County Arkansas Legal Battle Continues Over Casino Application Process

Posted on: March 27, 2020, 07:34h. 

Last updated on: March 27, 2020, 03:50h.

Two competing applicants for a casino license in Pope County, Arkansas are now looking to the state’s Racing Commission for quick approval. That’s after a local judge ruled this week the commission improperly rejected one of the applications, news reports said.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has sent a casino application for Pope County back to the Arkansas Racing Commission. (Image: Bobby Ampezzan/The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The Northwest Arkansas DemocratGazette reported Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ordered the commission to review the Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi application “on its merits.” He added that restrictions applied to applications were unconstitutional, the report said.

At issue is Amendment 100, which was approved by Arkansas voters in 2018. The amendment let the state proceed with a single casino in Pope and Jefferson counties, as well as expand gambling at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.

Under rules used by the Racing Commission, an application had to be supported by local officials. The Racing Commission rejected each of the five applicants because they lacked the required support from local officials in office at the time of applications.

Gulfside turned in an application last year. It was endorsed by two ex-local officials, according to the Associated Press.

Fox ruled the amendment does not explain when endorsements of applications must be dated or handed in, the AP adds.

Following Fox’s ruling, Casey Castleberry, an attorney for Gulfside, told the Gazette that “as Judge Fox’s ruling confirmed, we were the only applicant for Pope County that timely complied with every requirement of Amendment 100.”

The Arkansas Racing Commission should follow the precedent set with Saracen and grant us the casino license without further delay,” Castleberry added.

In 2019, the Racing Commission approved a casino license for the planned Saracen Casino Resort in Jefferson County’s Pine Bluff. The Quapaw Nation’s $350 million casino is expected to open some time this summer. The Quapaw were the only applicant for that county’s license.

In his ruling, Fox further rejected Gulfside’s argument it should be granted the license immediately by the Racing Commission, the Gazette said.

“It is clear from reading Amendment 100 as a whole that Gulfside’s premise is incorrect and that the Racing Commission is invested by Amendment 100 with both the privilege and the responsibility of utilizing its discretion as to whether a casino license should be issued to any applicant, regardless of whether such applicant is the only applicant during an application submission period,” Fox’s ruling said, the Gazette reported.

Fox’s ruling could be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Whether to appeal is up to Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. She will get input from the Racing Commission.

Earlier Arkansas Court Rulings

Another wrinkle in the Pope County license approval process came after the local Quorum Court threw its support to Cherokee Nation Businesses. Pope County Judge Ben Cross also supports the Cherokee application.

The process got even more complicated when, in January, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Racing Commission from approving a license for Pope County until hearings could take place.

Griffen made the ruling after a filing was submitted by the Citizens for a Better Pope County. The group is opposed to the casino and filed a lawsuit against its opening.

The citizens’ group contends the Racing Commission improperly permitted a second application period for casino license applications. The second period would only be allowed if no applications were received in the first application period, and five were submitted.

During the second period, the Cherokees submitted their application. In August, the Pope County Quorum Court endorsed the application from the Cherokee Nation Businesses.

This week, Chuck Garrett, Chief Executive Officer for Cherokee Nation Businesses, told the Gazette, “Now that the court has ruled, we have renewed our request that our application be accepted so that we can move forward with the process, preferably before the Racing Commission and Attorney General’s office decide whether to appeal the ruling.”

Judge Cross wants to see a “side-by-side comparison based on the merits of each” of the applicants, he told the Gazette.

“I still feel very confident in our selection of CNB/Legends [the Cherokees] as the appropriate vendor with the best overall economic value for Pope County, and that selection should be abundantly clear to the commission as well,” he was quoted. “I do not believe there is any likelihood that you would reasonably grant Gulfside Casino Partnership a license.”

Competing Casino Proposals

Gulfside wants to build the $254 million River Valley Casino Resort. It would have an 80,000 square-foot gaming floor. It also includes a 500-room hotel and a 15,000 square-foot convention center.

Cherokee Nation Businesses wants to build a $225 million Legends casino. It includes a 50,000 square-foot gaming floor. It would also open a 200-room hotel and a 15,000 square-foot event center.

The Cherokees say their casino would lead to $150 million a year in revenue. Under a 13 percent tax rate, it would generate $19.5 million annually in taxes.

Gulfside claims its casino would lead to $200 million a year in revenue. Gulfside estimates it would generate $29.5 million a year in tax revenue.

In February, the Arkansas Ethics Commission began looking into allegations that Pope County Majority, a group which supports the Legends gaming property in Pope County, is acting as an unregistered political action committee or ballot question committee, news reports said. A representative of the group rejected the allegations.