Pope County casino group promises $20 million education foundation, if approved

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 900 views 

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

Gulfside Casino Partnership announced Tuesday (Jan. 8) it will establish the Pope County Education Foundation if granted a license in the state.

The Arkansas-based nonprofit would be funded by tax-deductible contributions, including a $20 million commitment from River Valley Casino, Gulfside’s proposed $250 million project in Pope County.

The Mississippi-based casino announced at the end of 2018 plans to build a $250 million complex in Pope County.

Gulfside Casino Partnership submitted a letter to the Arkansas Racing Commission from outgoing Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson, who left office Dec. 31, in support of its application for casino gaming. Gulfside said it planned to build the resort casino in three phases, if approved by state regulators, by mid-2020. Former Russellville Mayor Randy Horton also sent a letter of support prior to leaving office.

“We are excited to announce our continued commitment to Pope County,” said Terry Green, co-owner of Gulfside, in a media release. “In addition to our plans for River Valley Casino, which include a hotel, conference center and performing arts venue, this foundation would amplify our investment in the region well beyond our resort.”

If established, the foundation would receive a $1 million annual contribution from River Valley Casino for 20 years once it commences operations. Its funds would be distributed to local public schools for academic programming, student experiences, facility upgrades and other educational initiatives as directed by the five Pope County school districts.

Pending approval by the Arkansas Racing Commission, the proposed River Valley Casino would create more than 1,500 permanent hospitality jobs for a total payroll of $60.5 million, the media release said. It would support more than $28 million in gaming taxes to the county, state and Arkansas Racing Commission for the live racing purse and awards fund, as well as ad valorem, property, sales and other traditional taxes, according to its estimates.

In November, 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.

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.

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.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross, who took office Jan. 1, said he was opposed to any casino being built in the county.

State Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said she planned to file legislation in the upcoming session allowing for a process for letters of support to be withdrawn.

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.