Racing Commission reviewing rules to reopen Pope County casino process

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 552 views 

The Arkansas Racing Commission is ready to roll the dice again. The five-member panel agreed Wednesday (Jan. 24) to review proposed rules for a new application process for a Pope County casino. It will vote on those rules at a special called meeting planned for 11 a.m. on Jan. 30.

The commission voted to study the proposed rules after they were presented by Doralee Chandler, deputy attorney general over state agencies.

If approved by the commission, the rules would reopen an application process for a casino in Pope County that has been plagued by delays and lawsuits since voters approved the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment in 2018.

That amendment created four casino licenses. The other three casinos are already in operation: Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Southland Casino Hotel in West Memphis, and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, which is operated by the Quapaw Nation.

Chandler said Cherokee Nation Businesses’ Pope County license had been voided by a Supreme Court decision on Jan. 11 not to rehear an appeal. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox had ruled in January 2023 that the Racing Commission had unconstitutionally awarded the license to Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends Resort and Casino.

Chandler said that ruling effectively left the commission without any applications to consider. A new open application period is needed, but the current rules don’t contemplate that situation.

“Our goal is to move this expediently as we can, and eliminating as much potential litigation as possible,” she said.

Chandler said the rules promulgation process will take 60 to 120 days. The rules would have to be approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council. The Racing Commission then would have to approve a new application process, which would be open 30 days. Then the applicants would be scored.

In the court case, Gulfside Casino Partnership, a competing applicant, had appealed a 3-2 vote in November 2021 by the Racing Commission to grant the Pope County license to Cherokee Nation Businesses. In October 2021, the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that Gulfside did not have a required official letter from an elected official during the active part of the application process, while Cherokee Nation did. Gulfside had relied on a letter from the previous county judge, who was no longer in office when the application was submitted.

Current Pope County Judge Ben Cross, who supports the Cherokee Nation’s application, said after the Supreme Court’s decision Jan. 11 that the Racing Commission now could move forward. The Pope County Quorum Court passed a resolution of support favoring Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garrett said after the Supreme Court decision, “We are prepared to once again demonstrate our 30 plus years of experience in gaming and hospitality to the Arkansas Racing Commission and move forward with building Legends Resort & Casino, bringing much-needed economic growth to the community and state.”

Casey Castleberry, an attorney for the Gulfside Casino Partnership, said after that decision that Gulfside will seek to change the minds of Pope County officials.

“We are pleased the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed its recent decision that the license issued to Legends and CNB was null and void,” he said. “We now await guidance and next steps from the Arkansas Racing Commission, the state’s governing body on gaming, as to how and when it will receive and consider applications. We look forward to demonstrating to the Pope County Quorum Court why Gulfside is worthy of the county’s support.”

The initial 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 presented a $254 million initial proposal 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, the company said.