Supreme Court reshuffles the deck on plans for casino license in Pope County

State News

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Supreme court ruled Thursday that a license awarded for a new casino in Pope County was rescinded, sending the process back to square one.

The issue at hand stems back to a decision by Arkansas voters in November of 2018 to pass Amendment 100, which would greenlight new casinos being built in four areas around the state.

When the measure passed, it required applicants seeking a license for a casino in the state to have a support letter from a county official, as well as from a city official if the development was planned inside of a city’s limits.

The Gulfside Casino Partnership secured support letters for a planned casino in Russellville from the Pope County judge and mayor of Russellville in December of 2018, before officials with the Arkansas Racing Commission announced the process for applications for the casino licenses.

Both of those local officials left office at the end of 2018, and their replacements ended up supporting plans by a different developer, Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Despite the change in where the county was officially placing its support, the ARC eventually awarded the license to Gulfside to build the casino.

Lawsuits were filed trying to block the development of the casino, contending the support letters from former officials were not valid, meaning the Gulfside application was incomplete and not qualified.

In a 3-2 decision Thursday, the state justices ruled that since the Racing Commission had not opened the application period for the casino licenses until May of 2019, the letters of support had to come from local officials after that time. That means the Gulfside application was invalid.

The process now returns back the Arkansas Racing Commission.

After the ruling, attorneys representing Cherokee Nation Businesses claimed that the company is currently the only qualified applicant for the Pope County license and is ready to move forward.

“Today’s ruling is exciting and greatly appreciated. I know CNB is ready to put an end to litigation and start building,” CNB legal counsel Dustin McDaniel said in a release. “We anticipate CNB’s license will be issued as soon as the mandate is effective, and we will work quickly to bring final resolution to any remaining lawsuits.”

Pope County Judge Ben Cross said the decision by the court was a welcome one and that the plan from CNB will be a financial boom the county.

“Out of the six potential vendors who expressed interest, one clear choice came to light, Cherokee Nation Businesses,” Cross explained. “CNB brought forth an Economic Development proposal, which was further solidified into an Economic Development Agreement, that includes significant financial support and infrastructure investment not seen in Pope County since the construction of Arkansas Nuclear One.”

Officials with Gulfside, which in recent months had opened an office in Russellville and launched a website touting the project, said they would continue to seek approval to build their casino.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, but this isn’t the end of the road,” Casey Castleberry, counsel for Gulfside Casino Partnership, said. “We remain committed to building a first-class entertainment destination in Pope County and bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to the state.”

While the debate over who will build and run a casino in Pope County keeps going, the other three operations around Arkansas in West Memphis, Hot Springs and Pine Bluff have opened and continued to grow.

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