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Arkansas Racing Commission defers vote on new Pope County casino license process

A rendering of Legends Resort & Casino in Pope County.
Legends Resort & Casino
A rendering of Legends Resort & Casino in Pope County.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

The issuance of Arkansas’ fourth and final casino license will be delayed — again — likely for months.

And if the litigious history of the Pope County casino permit is a guide, the wait could be far longer.

The Arkansas Racing Commission, which oversees the state’s casinos, met for a half hour on Wednesday, but it took no action, instead deciding to study a set of proposed rule changes until next week.

The changes aim to mitigate lawsuits against the commission and allow it to open a new application period for the license to operate a casino near Russellville.

“So, we’re basically wiping the slate clean and starting it all over?” Commissioner Mark Lamberth asked Deputy Attorney General Doralee Chandler, who responded that was an appropriate way to look at it.

The slate being wiped clean is five years of bureaucratic and legal battles waged by dozens of lobbyists and attorneys for hopeful casino operators and Pope County residents opposed to any casino in their community.

The Racing Commission has twice awarded the lucrative license — first to Gulfside Casino Partnership then to Cherokee Nation Businesses/Legends Resort & Casino — only to have the courts intervene to revoke them.

Most recently, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling nullifying the Cherokees’ license, kicking the matter back to the Racing Commission.

New rules

The commission plans to reconvene Tuesday to vote on the new rules, but state agency rule changes do not happen quickly.

They must be approved by top executive officials, including the governor, before being made available for a 30-day public comment period.

Next, they must be approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council. Finally, the rules take effect 10 days after being filed with the secretary of state’s office.

Chandler estimated the promulgation process could take between 60-120 days.

Then, the commission could again set the scoring process and open a 30-day application period.

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

“We’ve been through enough litigation to last us a lifetime,” Chairman Alex Lieblong said. “I can’t keep track of the courts.”

How’d we get here?

Arkansans voted to legalize casino gambling through a 2018 ballot initiative. That ratified Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, permitting four casinos.

The first two casinos were written into the amendment: the existing racetracks in West Memphis (Southland) and Hot Springs (Oaklawn).

The third license was issued quickly and without controversy in Jefferson County due to local support for the Quapaw Nation, which opened Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.

The Pope County license has been unique with local efforts opposing the casino altogether and multiple casino operators interested in the license.

There has also been controversy over the support casino applicants must have from the county’s elected local officials to meet the minimum requirements to hold a casino license.

The commission at first declined to award the Pope County license to any applicant, but in 2020, it gave Gulfside the license.

However, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that Gulfside’s support letter from the previous Pope County judge was invalid because he was not in office at the time of the application.

That cleared the way for the commission to award the license to Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC/Legends Resort and Casino LLC, which did have a letter of support from the current county judge, in November 2021.

With that license tossed out, the Cherokees and Gulfside agreed in separate letters to the Racing Commission that a new application period was warranted, but they disagreed on whether a rule change was required, with Gulfside urging adoption of new rules.

The Cherokees are currently in the best position to qualify for a license under the law because they are the only casino group with the support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross, who updated his letter of support for the Legends casino following the Supreme Court’s October ruling. The Pope County Quorum Court also voted 7-6 to back the Cherokee casino bid.

However, Gulfside has remained committed to making a pitch of its own to Cross and the justices of the peace if a new license period is opened.

“We appreciate the Attorney General’s careful examination of this matter and generally believe its recommendations are the appropriate way for the Arkansas Racing Commission to move forward,” Gulfside’s attorney, Casey Castleberry, said in a statement.

Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.