The contentious path to building a casino in Pope County took yet another turn Thursday (Jan. 12) when Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox ruled that Arkansas officials “unconstitutionally” granted a casino license to Cherokee Nation Businesses.
Gulfside Casino Partnership had appealed a November 2021 decision by the Arkansas Racing Commission to grant the Pope County license to Cherokee Nation Businesses and its Legends Resort and Casino company.
The Cherokee Nation proposal was approved in a narrow 3-2 Racing Commission vote after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled ineligible the Gulfside Casino Partnership proposal in late October 2021. The state’s high court ruled that Gulfside did not have an official letter from an elected official during the active part of the application process, while Cherokee Nation did.
Judge Fox noted in his 6-page ruling that the Arkansas Racing Commission acted outside its authority and did not follow the rules of Amendment 100 – the voter-approved amendment allowing four casino operations in Arkansas – in granting the license to Cherokee Nation.
“The Racing Commission abused its regulatory agency discretion in allowing ‘good cause shown’ for the Legends’ casino license application to be tendered over seven months after the May 2019 license period closed when Legends did not even exist at the time of the May 2019 application period,” Fox noted.
Continuing, he ruled that the Cherokee Nation license was “issued unconstitutionally, in violation of the clear and unambiguous language of Amendment 100. Such license is a legal nullity, void and of no effect.”
The Cherokee Nation will appeal the ruling. They filed notice of appeal with the state Supreme Court on Friday afternoon.
“While the circuit court’s ruling is disappointing, in the interest of forward progress, we are pleased to have a decision. We remain confident in our legal position and will move quickly to have our appeal heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in a statement.
The Cherokee Nation casino proposal was estimated to cost $225 million and include 50,000 square feet of gaming space accommodating 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, a sportsbook located within a high-end sports bar, a luxury hotel with 200 rooms with a resort-style pool, spa and fitness center, 15,000 square feet of mixed-use conference and entertainment space accommodating 1,000 people, and an outdoor water park and music venue.
Gulfside attorney Lucas Rowan said the ruling puts Gulfside back in play for the Pope County casino. Gulfside had proposed a $254 million that would include 500 hotel rooms, 80,000 square feet of gaming space, dining options and outdoor entertainment space. The casino would add 1,500 jobs in the region and have a $60.5 million annual payroll.
“Gulfside remains committed to building a first-class entertainment destination in Pope County and bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to Arkansas, and this ruling that Legends was not qualified is a step in that direction,” Rowan said in a statement.
The Arkansas Racing Commission provided the following statement to Talk Business & Politics: “With an anticipated appeal by CNB, the Racing Commission may await the ultimate outcome of this litigation. The Attorney General’s Office represents the Commission in this matter. Although three casinos are now in full operation as approved by Arkansans in November 2018, the fourth license (Pope County) remains contested more than four years later. The state’s casino industry is seeing record numbers in sports betting as a result of the mobile betting option. Players wagered $30.5 million in November, a new monthly record. We expect new records as Arkansans have the option to bet the Super Bowl and March Madness via mobile device for the first time.”
Casinos in three counties are operational: Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.