Pope County casino activity stirs controversy (UPDATED)

by Roby Brock (roby@talkbusiness.net) 1,701 views 

A rendering of Gulfside's proposed Pope County casino complex.

An announcement that a Mississippi-based casino plans to build a $250 million complex in Pope County was met with opposition from local elected officials on Friday (Dec. 28).

Gulfside Casino Partnership submitted a letter to the Arkansas Racing Commission from outgoing Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson in support of its application for casino gaming. Gulfside said it planned to build a $250 million resort casino in three phases, if approved by state regulators, by mid-2020.

Update: Russellville Mayor Randy Horton has also written a letter of support for Gulfside.

The announcement comes more than a month after Arkansas voters approved Issue 4, now Amendment 100, to allow for expanded casino operations at Oaklawn (Garland Co.), Southland (Crittenden Co.) and new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties.

“We are excited to make a significant economic investment in the Arkansas River Valley with this first-class resort,” said Terry Green, co-owner of Gulfside. “This project will create more than 1,500 new jobs and generate millions of dollars in taxes—improving the county’s infrastructure and its overall quality of life.”

The recently-passed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution requires that only one casino license can qualify in each of the two new counties. Applicants must “submit either a letter of support from the county judge or a resolution from the county quorum court in the county where the casino would be located and, if the proposed casino is to be located within a city, a letter of support from the mayor of that city,” the amendment states. It also says that a casino to be built in Pope County must be “within two miles of the city limits of the county seat,” which would be Russellville.

Judge Gibson, who leaves office at the end of December, provided a letter of support for Gulfside’s request, but plans for a location within any specific city limits have not been announced.

While state voters passed the amendment by a 54-46% margin, it failed in Pope County by a 60-40% margin. Pope County voters also passed a local ordinance by a nearly 70% margin that requires an election to allow a casino to be built in the area. The casino amendment passed in the surrounding counties around Pope County ranging from 51% approval to 56% approval.

On Friday, Pope County Judge-elect Ben Cross, who will take office on Jan. 1, 2019, said he was opposed to any casino being built in the county.

“It is with great discouragement and dismay to have learned of the actions of the current county judge in regards to the casino issue. To have a lame duck official act in total disregard to the express wishes of the residents of Pope County is appalling and a complete affront to our representative democracy,” Cross said in a statement to content partner KATV. “Legal challenges aside, it is my responsibility to represent and respect the voters’ decision of those who elected me to lead our county.”

Also, State Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, requested an Attorney General’s opinion on Judge Gibson’s actions and said she planned to file legislation in the upcoming session allowing for a process for letters of support to be withdrawn.

Late in the week, Russellville citizen James Knight filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Judge Gibson’s action supporting Gulfside’s request.

Gulfside’s attorney, Casey Castleberry, said the casino is following the guidelines put forth in the voter-approved casino amendment.

“We have been in discussions with local leaders since March,” Castleberry said. “The Arkansas Constitution clearly supersedes any local ordinance. This process is playing out as intended by Amendment 100.”

Gulfside currently operates Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, Miss. During the 2018 campaign, Gulfside Casino Partnership, LLC contributed $50,000 through a ballot question committee known as Jobs for Pope County, which advocated for the casino proposal.

Oaklawn announced in November it would build a $100 million gaming and hotel complex on its Hot Springs grounds by early 2020. Southland’s owners, Delaware North, said a $200 million hotel and convention center could be added to its casino operations in West Memphis.

In early December, the Quapaw Nation’s Downstream casino enterprise said it would build a casino in Jefferson County before 2020, if it received regulatory approval. Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Booker Clemons wrote letters of recommendation for the Quapaw group’s efforts.