A controversial proposed gaming property in Pope County Arkansas could be debated Wednesday by the state’s Racing Commission. The commissioners will look again at the Cherokee Nation Businesses’ application for a license for the possible Russellville venue.
A competing application was also submitted by Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi. Casey Castleberry, an attorney for Gulfside, has challenged recent criticism by Thomas Akin, a former Arkansas Racing Commission member, detailed in a letter he sent to local officials, about Gulfside’s application and owners.
These are blatant misrepresentations by competing casino interests,” Castleberry told the Arkansas Times. “The people who know and regulate Gulfside unanimously endorse its owners’ character, charitable giving, and sound business practices.”
Supporters include ex-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. They are both Republicans.
Last month, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox sent the Cherokee application back to the racing commission. He said restrictions over who endorses the application were unconstitutional and the application needs to be considered “on its merits.”
Amendment 100 Important to Legal Controversy
Castleberry claimed Gulfside was the “only applicant for Pope County that timely complied with every requirement of Amendment 100.”
The amendment was approved by Arkansas voters in 2018. It cleared the path for casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties, as well as adding gambling at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.
Five Pope County applications were turned down by the commission. None of the five was endorsed by local officials currently serving in office — an apparent requirement from the racing commission.
In another legal wrinkle, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen recently ordered the state’s racing commission not to approve a casino license for Pope County and issued a temporary restraining order. The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Better Pope County.
The Cherokee application was supported by a local quorum court and Pope County Judge Ben Cross. “I do not believe there is any likelihood that you would reasonably grant Gulfside Casino Partnership a license,” Cross said.
In 2019, the racing commission approved a casino license for the planned Saracen Casino Resort in Jefferson County’s Pine Bluff. The Quapaw Nation’s $350 million casino is expected to open sometime this summer.
Fox’s ruling could be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Whether to appeal is up to Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. She will get input from the racing commission.
Competing Pope County Proposals
Gulfside wants to build the $254 million River Valley Casino Resort. It would have an 80,000 square-foot gaming floor. It also includes a 500-room hotel and a 15,000 square-foot convention center.
Cherokee Nation Businesses wants to build a $225 million Legends casino. It includes a 50,000 square-foot gaming floor. It would also open a 200-room hotel and a 15,000 square-foot event center.
In Pope County, more than 60 percent of voters said they did not want a casino. Russellville residents have opposed a casino in their Pope County town, too.
But local officials accepted bids from gaming operators.