State Racing Commission approves Pine Bluff casino license, rejects five bids for Pope County

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 1,244 views 

Five of the half-dozen applicants for casino gaming licenses in Arkansas went home rejected following a highly-anticipated meeting Thursday (June 13) that put the rare spotlight on the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC).

At that same 90-minute meeting, the seven-person commission also approved a lone proposal by the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma to immediately begin construction on a $215 million hotel and casino complex that Jefferson County officials said will boost the region’s economic development efforts.

Both of those actions took place during the state’s gaming regulators monthly meeting held before a standing room-only crowd at the ARC boardroom just west of the State Capitol complex. ARC Attorney Byron Freeland began the discussion with the consideration of the gaming licenses for Pope County that were submitted ahead of the commission’s May 31 deadline.

After naming the five applications requesting casino permits in Pope County, Freeland told the gaming panel that none of the proposals had received letters of recommendations from current local city officials or the county judge where the casinos would be located.

Freeland also told the commissioners that Act 371 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, was approved by the legislature during the recent 2019 regular session with an emergency clause that led the bill to become law immediately in March. He said that legislation makes clear that approval for a casino in either Pope or Jefferson County must come from the local quorum court, county judge or mayor at the time an application is made for a casino license.

“So, the recommendation is that all five of these applications be denied as being incomplete under the Arkansas Racing Commission’s (rules) and the Arkansas law passed in Act 371,” said Freeland. “I also recommend that if a casino in Pope County in the future receives the support that the Racing Commission reopen the process for some period that you will establish 30 to 90 days that will give the applicants an opportunity to acquire a letter issued by the county judge or mayor.”

Before the gaming commission decided on the Pope County applicants, attorney Casey Castleberry spoke on behalf of Gulfport, Miss.-based Gulfside Casino Partnership that has announced plans to build a $250 million casino complex in Russellville. Castleberry said he wanted to make it clear for the record that Gulfside officials believe the commission’s rule and Davis’ bill approved are both unconstitutional.

“We may challenge that,” said Castleberry, adding that Arkansas gaming rules also state that each Pope County casino applicant submit to an interview.

Afterward, Pope County Judge Ben Cross told the commission that local and community officials had a meeting earlier this week to consider a special election or other local option to decide once-and-for-all if a casino would be welcome in the community about 75 miles northwest of Little Rock.

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. However, that ballot issue failed in Pope County by a 60-40% margin, and voters there 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 (Pope County) quorum court has led me to believe forward at a timetable that I do not know, and put a version of this local (casino) option on the ballot,” said Cross, who took office on Jan. 1 and was opposed to any casino being built in the county.

Among the five Pope County applications before the gaming commission, only Gulfside’s proposal had the signatures of support from locally elected officials, a requirement of the process. However, Freeland said those signatures were submitted before the Russellville mayor and Pope County Judge left office at the end of 2018, which does not meet the requirements of the commission’s rules and Act 371.

After the testimony from Castleberry and Cross, the commission unanimously approved the recommendation to deny all five applications due to the lack of current letters of support from top officeholders in Pope County. The regulatory panel also universally approved a motion to reopen the process to review a new application from Pope County over the next 90 days, if that proposal has a letter of recommendation from local and county officials.

Besides Gulfside, state gaming officials received bids for casino licenses from four other applicants just ahead of the May 31 deadline two weeks ago. They included proposals from 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.

After the Pope County applications were rejected, the commission quickly transitioned and unanimously approved the lone application submitted by Downstream Development for a $215 million gaming and hotel complex in Jefferson County on a 385-acre plot of land within the city limits of Pine Bluff.

Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berry told the commission that he spent considerable time and effort convincing Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson and  local community and business leaders of the merits of the casino project that is expected to bring over 1,100 jobs to the region.

After offering a history of the Quapaw Nation’s connection to Arkansas and Pine Bluff going back more than a century, Berry told the commission that Downstream casino would not only boost economic development across the county and surrounding region, but would seek to be a community and state partner.

“We are a little different than another gaming company. We are a community-centric nation that believes in uplifting people,” said Berry. “Even though it is about revenue, this is not for shareholders – it is for the community.”

Berry, who is also chairman of the partnership backing the casino project, also told the commission that the Quapaw Nation will waive its sovereign community as a federally-protected Indian tribe and operate the Pine Bluff gaming complex as a commercial property.  His presentation also included letters of support from city and county officials, including the newly-elected Robinson.

“This (project) will bring hope and opportunity,” said Robinson, who did not fully support the project when he was elected as county judge in January. “Where we were first skeptical, we are now in full-fledged support of moving forward.”

Earlier, Berry also explained to the commission that once construction begins on the project, Downstream plans to make 300 gaming slots available in only five months at a trucking stop located on land purchased by his partnership. That Quapaw Nation business entity, he said, will not only expand that trucking business, but also plans to build a fire and police substation for city and county use.

Still, Pine Bluff native Jack Foster raised questions before the commission about the annexation of that land related to Downstream’s application. Despite that query, the board commended Berry for the Quapaw Nation’s application and unanimously approved a motion to award a casino license for the project.

After the meeting, Berry told Talk Business and Politics that Downstream will begin work on the project immediately, hiring over 1,000 workers during the 18-month construction phase. He also said his partnership will soon begin a Wall Street roadshow to get backing for the debt and capital funding the Quapaw Nation is seeking to finance the project.