RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – As Pope County citizens take legal action to reduce the odds of a casino, plans for one have begun to take shape.
A website for River Valley Casino Resort announces a three-phase, $254-million facility with 2,100 slot machines, 100 table games and 600 hotel rooms by late fall of 2020.
Its company, Gulfside Casino Partnership, later sent out a press release, saying it submitted a letter Friday to the Arkansas Racing Commission from outgoing Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson in support of its application for casino gaming.
“There was always a possibility that an elected official was just going to ignore that ordinance and just write the letter in the face of all of Pope County, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Anna Stiritz, a Russellville attorney and member of Citizens for a Better Pope County.
According to the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, Pope County voters rejected the casino amendment with more than 60 percent of the vote in November but passed a county ordinance with 68 percent that would prohibit an elected official from signing a letter of support without an election.
“We’ve always been determined to fight as hard as we could to protect what’s ours, and that is the right to decide for ourselves,” Stiritz said. “We have the rule of law, and we’re going to use it.”
A court will ultimately have to weigh in, but Gulfside’s attorney argues the ordinance is unconstitutional.
“Any local legislation that’s in conflict with the constitution is superseded, and that would be our position,” said Casey Castleberry. “I think it’s fairly clean cut.”
“At the time the ordinance was passed, it was fairly one-sided, the campaigning in Pope County,” Castleberry continued. “Once the residents get to hear what we’ve got in mind and hear our side of the argument, we think they’ll change their minds.”
The company has not released the location of the new resort casino but promises more than 1,600 new jobs in the community and millions in tax revenue.
“This letter didn’t just come out over night,” Castleberry said. “It’s the result of a lot of communication over several months between Gulfisde and the county judge. I can’t speak for the judge, but obviously he decided that what we set out for him is in the best interest of the county.”
However, some in Pope County refuse to agree.
“They can dream,” Stiritz said. “Just because there’s a picture on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s going to get built.”
While both sides wait to see how the issue plays out in court, the racing commission is in the public comment period of its new casino gaming rules. It meets next Jan. 10.
The rules are due in March then companies can officially apply for a casino license.
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – Pope County citizens filed a lawsuit and submitted an attorney general opinion request Thursday to reduce the odds of a casino opening in their neighborhood.
Resident James Knight seeks a restraining order to stop outgoing County Judge Jim Ed Gibson from signing a letter of support, citing the county ordinance voters passed in November that prohibits the judge from doing so without their approval. It took effect Nov. 14.
KARK obtained a letter from Judge Gibson to the Arkansas Racing Commission dated Dec. 21 that voices his support, reading, “If a license is issued for a casino in Pope County Arkansas I give my support for Gulfside Casino Partnership.” The group is based in Mississippi.
St. Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, asks for an attorney general opinion on Pope County voters’ power to restrict their county judge’s authority over the state’s new casino amendment.
In her letter, Sen. Davis calls the issue “very time sensitive” due to Gibson’s letter and the fact he leaves office Dec. 31. The racing commission gave tentative approval Wednesday to a rule that states any letter of support dated after Nov. 14 counts.
The constitutional amendment, which voters passed Nov. 6, gives the commission the authority to develop rules for the licensing and operation of up to four new casinos, two at the racetracks at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis, and two at new sites in Jefferson and Pope counties. The amendment dictates Jefferson and Pope must receive letters of support from the county judge and mayor before moving forward.
The commission meets next on Jan. 10 for public comment on the rule.