Five casino bids made for Pope County, one for Jefferson County

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 1,987 views 

Concept of the River Ridge casino planned by Elite Resorts for Pope Co.

Ahead of Thursday’s 5 p.m. deadline to submit bids for gaming licenses in Pope and Jefferson counties, the Arkansas Racing Commission received four applications to build new casino operations near or within the city limits of Russellville.

Prior to the May 30 deadline, state gaming officials had only received two applications in late 2018, one from Gulfside Casino Partnership in Pope County and the other from the Quapaw Nation’s Downstream Development Authority to locate a casino-hotel complex in Jefferson County.

“Four additional applications were received today for the Pope County license,” said state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin, who also serves as media liaison for the state Racing and Medical Marijuana Commissions.

The new applicants in Pope County include the Oklahoma-based Cherokee and Choctaw Nations; Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group LLC, which will license with the Hard Rock Cafe brand; and the Robert and Ruth Kehl family of Iowa, applying as the River Ridge Casino Resort.

Hardin said the seven-person racing commission, which is housed within DF&A, will meet June 13 to consider all six applications in Pope and Jefferson counties. He said the Downstream Development Authority’s lone application in Pine Bluff includes letters of support from current Jefferson County leaders, while the former Russellville mayor and Pope County judge are backing the Gulfside bid.

“Letters of support from the current mayor or county judge were not included in the four applications submitted today,” said Hardin.

Last month, Talk Business & Politics reported that Warner Gaming, a hospitality and entertainment company operating resort properties throughout the western and midwestern United States, will team with the Hard Rock brand to propose a new fully integrated resort with casino gaming for Pope County. In its application on Thursday, Warner Gaming said it would team with Pennisula Pacific, another gaming entity.

The Hard Rock brand has a presence in 75 countries, including 185 Hard Rock Cafes, 27 hotels and 11 casinos. In addition to state-of-the-art casino gaming, the resort planned for the Arkansas River Valley will include a best-in-class hotel and upscale dining and conference facilities. It will also have indoor and outdoor venues for live entertainment and other amenities.

“We aim to deliver to Pope County a facility that will attract visitors throughout the region and beyond,” Bill Warner, owner and CEO of Warner Gaming said. “With its truly global reach, the Hard Rock brand will help us do that.”

In late 2018, Gulfside Casino Partnership first announced plans to build a $250 million complex in Pope County. The Mississippi-based partnership also said in January that it will establish the $20 million Pope County Education Foundation if granted a license in the state.

“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,” said Terry Green, co-owner of Gulfside, in a media release.

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, officials 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.

Applications in Pope County from the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations would bring the influence of the largest members of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes into Arkansas. Cherokee Nation Entertainment – the retail, gaming, entertainment, hospitality and cultural tourism entity of the Cherokee Nation – also operates the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tulsa, and five Cherokee-branded casinos across Oklahoma.

The nation’s second largest Indian tribe also operates the Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs, a horse racing track and pari-mutuel wagering operation in Claremore, Okla. The Muskogee, Okla.-based tribe has more than 285,000 members in Oklahoma and across the U.S., just behind the Navajo with a U.S. population of more than 310,000.

From its headquarters in Durant, Okla., the Choctaw Nation operates more than 22 casino and gaming complexes across Oklahoma. The nation’s fourth-largest Indian tribe has 223,279 enrolled members, of which 84,670 live within the state of Oklahoma and 41,616 live within the nation’s jurisdiction across 11 southeastern counties in the neighboring state. Neither of the two large Oklahoma tribes offered details for their planned casino operations in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, the Kehl family has majority ownership in Elite Casino Resorts LLC, which owns and operates several casino and gaming facilities in Iowa. The partnership’s Riverside Casino and Golf Resort opened in 2006 as the first true land-based casino in Iowa. It features a 56,000 sq. foot gaming floor, 1,200 seat event center, four restaurant options, 200 hotel rooms, spa, 18-hole Rees Jones golf course, and multiple shopping options.

Company officials boast that the $140 million resort has over 730 employees and is the largest employer in Iowa’s Washington County and one of the top 20 employers in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids business corridor.

The Kehl’s casino in Pope County, called River Ridge Casino Resort, also plans to give 4.5-5% of net earnings to a newly-created local non-profit.

In Jefferson County, the smaller Quapaw Nation hopes to bring a $37 million gaming and hotel facility in Pine Bluff by 2020. The small tribe, which traces its roots back to Arkansas, currently operates the Downstream Casino Resort complex near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. Quapaw officials submitted the only application to operate a casino in Jefferson County to state gaming regulators in late December.

In November 2018, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the issuance of four casino gaming licenses in Crittenden, Garland, Pope and Jefferson counties. Less than two weeks after Arkansas voters approved the gambling initiative, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming announced plans for a $100 million-plus project that will include a new high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center, a larger gaming area and extra on-site parking. That project is expected to be completed early next year.

Privately-held Delaware North has also revealed plans to build a new 240,000 square foot casino complex and a 20-story, 300-room hotel by early 2021 in the Crittenden County bedroom community across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn.