Pope County Casino Dispute Unsettled Despite Arkansas Supreme Court Ruling

Posted on: October 21, 2021, 02:06h. 

Last updated on: October 25, 2021, 05:20h.

Pope County in Arkansas was allocated a single casino license by way of a 2018 legislative effort. But nearly three years later, the county home to Russellville remains without a commercial gaming facility.

Pope County Arkansas casino gaming lawsuit
A file photo of the Arkansas Supreme Court Building in Little Rock. The state’s highest court has weighed in again on the ongoing legal dispute surrounding a casino in Pope County. (Image: Getty)

The Arkansas Supreme Court today ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) in its legal argument that it is the only qualified bidder for the Pope County casino license. However, another entity — Gulfside Casino Partnership — says otherwise.

CNB is the gaming unit of the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Native American tribe. Gulfside is a Mississippi-based development firm controlled by riverboat casino pioneers Terry Green and Rick Carter.

Arkansas courts for years have been trying to decide whether CNB or Gulfside should receive the Pope County casino license. A final resolution seems far out, despite the state’s highest court weighing in on the matter this week for yet a second time.

Complicated Backstory

The Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) was tasked with deciding which casino proposals to license in Pope and Jefferson counties. That was following the successful November 2018 gaming ballot referendum.

The gaming expansion additionally allowed the Oaklawn and Southland racetracks to become casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting. The Pope and Jefferson casinos are to be new, from-the-ground-up casinos.

Jefferson County partnered with the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma and its Downstream Development Authority. The Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff opened a year ago this month.

But in Pope, a contentious legal battle lasts. Arkansas’ gaming law requires that a casino presentation is only qualified with the support of the Pope County judge.

Gulfside submitted its casino plan in late 2018 to county officials with then-Pope County Judge Ed Gibson’s support. Gibson’s term, however, expired on December 31 of that year. CNB presented Pope County a casino blueprint in the summer of 2019 with current Pope County Judge Ben Cross’ support.

In June of 2020, the seven ARC commissioners each graded the two casino plans out of a possible score of 100. The ARC tally favored Gulfside by a score of 637 to CNB’s 572 points. And that’s when things got really ugly.

Just days after the scoring, the Racing Commission concluded that Commissioner Butch Rice had a bias in grading the Gulfside plan a perfect 100/100, while awarding the CNB scheme only 29 points. With Rice’s scores excluded, the ARC result favored CNB by a score of 543 points to 537 for Gulfside.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office intervened, and third-party counsel working with ARC recommended that the Gulfside development receive the license.

High-Stakes Courtroom Saga

The Cherokee Nation sued after Gulfside was deemed the winner. CNB attorneys argued that Gulfside wasn’t qualified for the license, as it didn’t have the sitting Pope County judge’s blessing at the time of its submission.

Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox ruled in May in favor of Gulfside. That was on grounds that the state gaming expansion legislation did not specify that a casino pitch must be accompanied with support from the present county judge. But today, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed Fox’s verdict.

The state’s Supreme Court said the casino application requiring support from “the county judge” infers it being the current sitting county judge. ARC only opened its gaming application period in May 2019, five months after Judge Cross’ tenure expired.

‘The’ before ‘county judge’ indicates a specific, definite judge, the current county judge — not a former county judge or retired county judge — because those are not ‘the’ county judge,” the majority opinion stated.

CNB celebrated the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling, while Gulfside said the outcome is not definitive.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision. But this isn’t the end of the road. We remain committed to building a first-class entertainment destination in Pope County and bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to the state,” Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry said.