Racing Commission puts Pope County casino bids back on roulette wheel

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 2,129 views 

The proposed $225 million Pope County casino parlay is back on again, so says the seven commissioners at the Arkansas Racing Commission.

The Arkansas Racing Commission on Thursday (Aug. 15) kicked off a special meeting by denying a lone appeal from Gulfport, Miss.-based Gulfside Casino Partnership to build a multimillion-dollar hotel and gambling complex in Pope County. They later ended the meeting by reopening a new 90-day application period for new casino bids for the county after five proposals were summarily rejected by the panel two months ago.

The Commission’s decisions, which occurred at an overflow meeting at the gaming agency’s headquarters just west of the State Capitol, took place amid a flurry of activity this week. The seven-person regulatory panel made quick work of an appeal by the Gulf Coast casino operator to restart its original proposal to build a $250 million, three-phase hotel and gaming development in the bedroom community about a 90-minute drive northwest of Little Rock.

On June 13, the same panel also denied Gulfside’s original application and four other out-of-state bids to build a casino in Pope County due to the lack of letters of support from top officeholders in Pope County. Scott Hardin, media liaison for the gaming regulatory agency housed within the state Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), said Thursday’s formal denial of Gulfside’s application exhausts all appeal options for the Mississippi casino operator under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act.

“Gulfside has stated publicly plans to pursue the next option, which is litigation,” Hardin said following the meeting.

Indeed, Gulfside has threatened legal action against state gaming regulators since its application was denied at the June meeting, after the commission took up all five applications for a lone casino license in Pope County submitted ahead of the state’s May 31 deadline. In June, ARC Attorney Byron Freeland told the gaming panel that none of the proposals had received letters of recommendations from local city officials or the county judge now in office where the casinos would be located.

Freeland also warned commissioners that Act 371 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, which was approved by the legislature during the recent 2019 regular session with an emergency clause, made 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.

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.

Among the five Pope County applications now 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.


Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry issued a statement concerning the commission’s decision shortly after the meeting, arguing that Gulfside was the only Pope County applicant that timely complied with every requirement of the voter-initiated measure that opened the door for casino gambling in Arkansas.

“We are disappointed by the Racing Commission’s decision, but believe we have a strong case to appeal its denial during the judicial process,” said Castleberry, who provided Talk Business & Politics a 22-page notarized copy of a complaint that lays out the Mississippi casino owner’s legal case.

“When we receive the license, we look forward to building our first-class resort and fulfilling our commitment to be a strong partner to the River Valley,” he said.

Earlier this week, several key developments occurred that opened the door for the commission’s decision today to put the applications back on the roulette wheel for another try at the lone Pope County gaming license.

On Tuesday, the Cherokee Nation Businesses received the blessing of the Pope County Quorum Court for a license to open The Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas just outside of Russellville city limits. By a vote of eight for, four against and one abstention, quorum court members approved a resolution supporting the Cherokees’ bid, which included a partnership with Legends, a stadium-management, sports, and live entertainment company founded in 2008 by Arkansas native and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late George Steinbrenner, former owner of the New York Yankees. The resolution of support needed seven votes from the 13-member county council.

The casino development, which will be designed by international firm HKS Architects and will showcase architecture influenced by the natural landscape of the Arkansas River Valley, is planned for near Russellville, on approximately 130 acres north of Interstate 40 along Nob Hill Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail. That outside-the-city address is important because the casino group does not need a letter of support from the mayor of Russellville. If it had been in the city limits of Russellville, it would have also required a letter from the mayor. The casino amendment does require the casino to be within two miles of the Russellville city limits if outside of its parameters.

Regarding the Pope County resolution of support for the Cherokee’s Legends Resort Casino, Hardin said the commission determined a new application period of 90 days will be opened.

“It will begin the day the public notice is posted, which we anticipate will be this weekend,” said Hardin. “Based on this, the application period will close in mid-November.”

The commission’s decision also puts three other casino proposals back in the queue from the Choctaw Nation Casino and Resort in Durant, Okla.; 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.

As casino plans in Pope County are still unsure, the business entity for the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma broke ground last week on a $350 million gaming complex in Jefferson County. Based on the original blueprints from Quapaw Nation’s Downstream Development Authority LLC that was approved by the commission at the June meeting, the Saracen Casino Resort will include 570,000 square feet of construction on 110 acres, including an 80,000 square-foot gaming floor, 300-room hotel, convention center and entertainment venue. Quapaw Nation officials have said the construction stage will produce more than 1,000 construction jobs, which is expected to take place over 18 months.