Pope County Quorum Court Delays Decision on Casino Quandary

Posted on: November 3, 2023, 09:56h. 

Last updated on: November 3, 2023, 11:56h.

The Pope County Quorum Court on Thursday tabled Judge Ben Cross’ request that they take a neutral position regarding the commercial casino license allocated to the county through the state’s 2018 gaming referendum.

Pope County Arkansas casino Ben Cross
Pope County Judge Ben Cross leads an Aug. 3, 2023, meeting of the Pope County Quorum Court. The county justices refused to approve a resolution introduced by Cross that would require the quorum to take a neutral position among two casino bids for the county’s lone gaming license. (Image: Pope County)

The Arkansas Supreme Court last month ruled that the Arkansas Racing Commission wrongly awarded the Pope County casino license to a group involving the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), the commercial business unit of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and Legends Hospitality. The high court ruled that Amendment 100, the 2018 referendum that legalized commercial casinos in Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope counties, required ARC to only issue a license to an experienced gaming operator applying as a sole entity.

CNB and Legends applied jointly for their proposed $225 million project called Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville. Legends Hospitality also does not possess gaming experience.

The state Supreme Court ruling is the latest in what’s become an incredibly complicated, years-long legal dispute about whether CNB/Legends or a competing bid from an entity called Gulfside Casino Partnership should be awarded the permit. Gulfside Casino Partnership is a Mississippi-based company experienced in running riverboat casinos.

Cross Backs Cherokees

Cross believes the Cherokee and Legends plan is the best fit for Pope County. Following the state Supreme Court ruling, Cross wrote an updated letter of support for the Legends Casino pitch.

The Cherokees and Legends Hospitality will likely rework their ownership structure to make CNB the sole applicant for the license. CNB has vast experience in developing and operating casinos.

Amendment 100 requires that bids only qualify for ARC consideration after securing a letter of support from the county judge or county quorum court. Cross asked the Pope Quorum Court justices during their Thursday meeting to approve a resolution pledging their neutrality to the ongoing casino dilemma.

After hearing Cross’ plea, the 13 justices of peace favored tabling the request. The quorum court will next meet on November 28, but that date is reserved for court budget considerations.

Cross in Crosshairs

When Cross issued his updated letter of support for the CNB/Legends casino, the county judge stressed the importance of expediting the issuance of the gaming license to allow Pope County to begin realizing the economic benefits of a casino that has already occurred in Crittenden, Garland, and Jefferson. Cross told racing commissioners that the quorum court would not further muddy the water by supporting the Gulfside plan, which is needed for ARC to consider the bid.

They [Quorum Court] aren’t going to issue a resolution in support of anyone,” Cross declared. But Thursday night, the justices decided not to fully carry out that pledge.

Gulfside previously presented a $254 million project called River Valley Casino Resort, also in Russellville, to ARC with the support of Judge Ed Gibson. Gibson favored the Gulfside plan with a letter of his support that he wrote just days before exiting the position in December 2018.

The Cherokees subsequently won a lawsuit that disqualified the Gulfside plan because it didn’t have a letter of support from the current county judge or the current county quorum court.