Pope County’s Arkansas casino license has a new timeline

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Published on: January 31, 2024 at 01:43 pm.

Last updated on: January 30, 2024 at 05:44 h.

An Arkansas casino license assigned to Pope County will likely be issued before the end of the year. That’s according to an updated timeline on how the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) will bid for the gaming opportunity and issue the state’s fourth and final commercial casino license.

Arkansas Casino Pope County
Alex LeBlong, chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission, is being consulted by state Deputy Attorney General Doralee Chandler on how to proceed with consideration of new bids for a Pope County casino license. A Pope County casino franchise remains unissued for five years after state voters authorized its issuance. (picture: Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

The ARC on Tuesday officially adopted revised rules for its casino gaming protocols when considering applications and approving bids. The updated procedures came after commissioners were notified by counsel provided by the office of Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (right).

Gaming and horse racing agency reviews first require approval by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R). After signing the framework, the conditions are transmitted to the Legislative Council for review.

Once the council gives its blessing, ARC will be allowed to open a 30-day bidding period to casino developers interested in securing a Pope County casino franchise.

How we got here

Arkansans in 2018 approved a statewide ballot referendum to allow one casino in Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson and Pope counties.

Two of the licenses are assigned to Southland and Oaklawn Raceways, located respectively in Crittenden and Garland counties. Since then, Southland and Oaklawn have opened Las Vegas-style casinos.

The third license was awarded to the Quapaw Nation, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma but with deep historical ties to Arkansas. The Quapaws teamed up with government officials in Jefferson to open the Saracen Casino Resort.

The Pope’s license remains up for grabs more than five years after voters approved the gaming license. Two bidders — Cherokee Nation Businesses, the business unit of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership — have restricted Pope’s license in court.

The Pope County casino saga began in 2020 when a commissioner was found to be biased in rating the Gulfside plan a perfect 100/100 while giving the Cherokee bid just 29 points. Despite the scandal, ARC rules require it to issue Gulfside a license within 30 days of the agency’s vote.

The Cherokees sued the state on the grounds that ARC should not consider Gulfside’s bid to build a $254 million destination in Russellville called River Valley Casino Resort. In a case that reached the state Supreme Court, it was decided that the 100th Amendment required a casino to bid for support the A district judge or quorum court refers only to a current judge or quorum court – not to a former judge or quorum court.

Gulfside’s bid included the endorsement of Pope County Judge Ed Gibson, who gave his support to the casino just days before leaving office in December 2018.

Lawsuits are ongoing

With the Arkansas Supreme Court invalidating Gulfside’s bid, ARC deemed Cherokee’s $300 million proposal called Legends Resort & Casino — also targeting Russellville — the winner. Gulfside then sued ARC on the grounds that Cherokee Stadium also violated the 100th Amendment.

In another case that reached the state’s highest court, it was determined that the Cherokees violated the amendment by bidding as a union. The Cherokee Nation Businesses proposal includes a newly formed entity called Legends Resort & Casino, LLC.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that Amendment 100 requires ARC to only consider bids from individual entities that can demonstrate competency in operating commercial casinos. Although Legends LLC is fully controlled by the National Central Bank (CNB), which has extensive gaming experience, the bid involving two entities made it absolute.

Updated ARC bidding rules for Pope County have not yet been announced.

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