The Arkansas Racing Commission voted today to award a casino license to the Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff. However, the commission denied five vendor applications for the Pope County casino.
Downstream Development Authority, part of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, received the casino license for the Jefferson County casino. According to DDA officials, construction on the casino is expected to begin immediately for the $350 million resort.
This was the sole applicant for the casino license in Jefferson County. However, there were five applicants for the Pope County casino license.
The five casino applicants for Pope County were Gulfside Casino Partnership, Cherokee Nation Business, Choctaw Nation, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and Elite Casino Resorts.
All of the applications for Pope County were rejected today. According to the commission, the applicants lacked the support of local authorities. In the casino license application, applicants were required to submit a letter of support from the county judge, a quorum court resolution, or a letter of support from a mayor if the casino was located in a city or town.
All of the applicants reportedly were looking at property in unincorporated areas of Pope County, which placed them in the jurisdiction of Pope County Judge Ben Cross.
In November 2018, Arkansas voters passed Amendment 100, which allowed casino licenses at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis. It also provided for casino licenses in Jefferson and Pope counties.
However, Pope County voters rejected Amendment 100 during the election. The voters passed an ordinance that requires the county judge to approve a casino project. While former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson issued a letter approving a casino, he was the outgoing judge. The current county judge, Ben Cross, has not submitted a letter of approval.
“We have a commission rule and a state law that mirror one another that says that they must have a letter of support from the city or county judge at the time the application was made. That application period was from May 1-30, and no applicants received such letters,” Cross says.
Cross declined to provide a letter of support for any of the casino vendors due to the county’s rejection of the amendment during the November election.
“Pope County, on November 6, voted it down at a 60-40 ratio. Even though the state of Arkansas passed a statewide opinion, the local vote decided against a casino in Pope County by a very high margin,” he says.
At a Pope County Quorum Court meeting this week, officials sought input from local citizens about the casino issue. According to Cross, the quorum court could call for a special election that could potentially shift the casino vote.
“I have no personal stance on this other than to maintain the will of the voters,” he says. “If some mechanism is devised so that there is another vote and it goes in the other direction, then I will uphold the will of those voters as well.”
Cross says one of the casino applicants, Gulfside Casino Partnership is planning to pursue legal action based on the outcome today. As of press time, it is not clear if the entity has filed suit.