Pope County Casino Bidding Period to Open This Summer

Posted on: March 12, 2024, 09:32h. 

Last updated on: March 12, 2024, 10:28h.

The Arkansas gaming license reserved for Pope County is back for a third bidding round. The first two ended in legal chaos.

Pope County Arkansas casino license
Pope County remains free of a casino more than five years after voters authorized Las Vegas-style gambling in the Arkansas county. The Arkansas Racing Commission will soon host another bidding period for the gaming license. (Image: CBS 11)

The Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) has approved its amended rules for issuing the four commercial casino licenses voters authorized through a statewide ballot referendum in 2018. A competitive bidding period for the gaming concession allocated for Pope County is expected to commence in the coming months.

ARC recently edited its Application for Casino Gaming License and Renewal procedures to accommodate yet another bidding round for the Pope resort opportunity. The gaming regulators added a section reading, “If no casino license is awarded at the conclusion of the application process, the commission shall open a new application period.”

The commission also wants a more comprehensive presentation.

“The commission shall consider the following criteria based on merit to evaluate applications, including a detailed summary of the proposed casino including hotel, amenities, projected number of employees, and any other information the casino applicant deems relevant,” the application process now reads.

The Arkansas legislature must approve ARC’s amended application guardrails before the commission can open another Pope County casino bidding period. The General Assembly is expected to ratify the changes in April.

Legal Scandal Drags On

ARC first issued Gulfside Casino Partnership, a Mississippi-based enterprise, the Pope County casino license. After a commissioner was determined to have had a bias in his grading of Gulfside’s plan over a competing bid from Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), the commercial arm of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the Arkansas Attorney General’s office recommended that ARC rescind the license and conduct another bidding round.

The Cherokees won round two. But Gulfside successfully sued on claims that the Cherokee plan violated ARC’s bidding rules that ban applications from consortiums. The lawsuit also contended that the Cherokees’ newly formed entity, Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, which was named on the application, lacked gaming experience as required.

Cherokee attorneys pushed back on that allegation, saying the tribe has decades of experience operating numerous tribal and commercial casinos in Oklahoma and Mississippi. Arkansas courts acknowledged that CNB knows how to run a casino, but said that experience does not lend to Legends.

“We’ve been through enough litigation to last us a lifetime,” ARC Chair Alex Lieblong said on Monday during a meeting.

Casino Market

Two of the three other Arkansas casino licenses approved by voters were written into the amendment and earmarked for the state’s two existing racetracks, Southland in Memphis and Oaklawn in Hot Springs. Those racinos have since become full-fledged Las Vegas-style casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting.

ARC also quickly awarded the other license to the Quapaw Nation after it partnered with Jefferson County. The Oklahoma tribe has since opened the $350 million Saracen Casino Resort.

The three casinos generated gross gaming revenue of $686.6 million last year, up 12% from 2022.

The economic benefits that casinos were billed to bring the four regions haven’t been realized in Pope County. The license remains in limbo over a half-decade after the gaming permit was approved.