It’s down to two proposals for a multimillion-dollar casino operation in Pope County. The Arkansas Racing Commission on Wednesday (April 15) approved two measures that allow Gulfside Casino Partnership and the Cherokee Nation/Legends to proceed to a final round of scoring.
In November 2018, Arkansas voters approved Issue 4, now Amendment 100, to allow for expanded casino operations at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort (Garland County), Southland Casino Racing (Crittenden County) and new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties. The approval and licensing process in Crittenden, Garland and Jefferson counties was relatively quick and smooth.
Five casinos originally applied for licenses in Pope County, but were turned down by the Arkansas Racing Commission in June 2019. They included proposals from the Oklahoma-based Cherokee and Choctaw Nations; Gulfside Casino Group; Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group LLC, which would license with the Hard Rock Cafe brand; and the Robert and Ruth Kehl family of Iowa, applying as River Ridge Casino Resort.
Four groups did not have letters of recommendation or the quorum court provision, which led to their rejections from the commission. Gulfside did have letters of recommendation from then-Mayor Randy Horton and Pope County Judge Ed Gibson. Those letters were received after Amendment 100 became law and before the former elected officials left office on Jan. 1, 2019, but the Racing Commission decided that a rule and new state law requiring the officials to be officeholders at the time of application required rejection.
The Cherokee Nation Businesses received in August 2019 the blessing of the Pope County Quorum Court for a license to open a casino in the county.
On Wednesday the commissioners faced two decisions: To appeal a March 24 ruling from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox that required consideration of the Gulfside Casino plan, and to vote on a “good cause” ruling that would recognize a letter from the Pope County Judge and Quorum Court as a valid part of the Cherokee Nation application.
Arkansas Deputy Attorney General Butch Reeves, who represents the commission, said appealing Judge Fox’s decision could take up to 18 months, but the contract with the third-party company scoring the applications ends June 30.
“We need to proceed with the consultant while we’ve got it (the contract),” Reeves said in encouraging the commissioners to not appeal the ruling.
Commissioners voted unanimously to not appeal the ruling.
The “good cause” issue, said Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong of Conway, simply means the commission recognizes the letter received by the Cherokee Nation from Pope County officials meets the application rules.
Lieblong stressed that voting for the good cause, and also voting to not appeal the Fox ruling, does not reflect that the commission is in favor of either proposal or even in favor of a casino being in the county. He said he understands the issue is sensitive and divisive in Pope County but Amendment 100 says there “shall” be a casino and the commission is required by law to select the best operator.
Commissioners voted unanimously for the “good cause” motion. The two applications will now be scored by gaming consultant Jim Fox (no relation to Judge Tim Fox).
Lucas Rowan, attorney for Gulfside Casino Partnership, provided this statement: “Gulfside is pleased the issue of our eligibility is now settled. We remain firm in the belief that we are the best choice for Pope County and for Arkansas, with 500 more permanent jobs and $10 million more in annual gaming tax revenue, all kept in state. We look forward to continuing to make the strong case for why we should receive the casino license.”
In addition to Lieblong, following are the other members of the Arkansas Racing Commission.
• Mark Lamberth, Batesville
• Butch Rice, Beebe
• Denny East, Marion
• Michael Post, Altus
• Bo Hunter, Fort Smith
• Steve Landers, Little Rock