Pope County Casino Application Process Begins May 12, Arkansas Racing Commission Announces

Land Based Casinos Law & Politics
Edward Scimia

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Edward Scimia


Last Updated 9th May 2024, 03:55 PM

Pope County Casino Application Process Begins May 12, Arkansas Racing Commission Announces

Cherokee Nation's Legends Resort & Casino battles Gulfside in the race for Arkansas' next  entertainment hub. (Image: Legends Resort & Casino rendering)

The Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) announced Monday that it would open the application period for casinos to seek a license in Pope County on May 12, with the window for applicants closing on June 11.

The ARC would then be required to award and issue the one available casino license for Pope County by July 24.

Pope County License Awarded, Rescinded Twice

The application period could be the end of a nearly six-year process that has seen at least two operators nearly secure a license in Pope County, only to see it slip away.

When the Arkansas voters approved Amendment 100 to the state constitution in 2018, it authorized the creation of a casino license for Pope County, along with one in Jefferson County. 

By 2019, the ARC had already awarded the Jefferson County license, and while that license was eventually transferred from the Quapaw Nation to Saracen Development LLC, the result was a casino—the Saracen Casino Resort—now located in Pine Bluff.

In 2020, the ARC awarded the Pope County license to Gulfside Casino Partnership. However, that license was nullified after a court battle. 

Applicants are required to submit letters of endorsement for their license bids from local officials in office. However, Gulfside’s letter was signed by former Pope County Judge Ed Gibson, whose term expired at the end of 2018.

That led the commission to instead issue the license to a partnership between Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends Resort Casino in 2021. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down that decision last October, pointing out that the state constitution only allows a single entity to hold a casino license.

Cherokee Nation, Gulfside Placing Their Casino Bets

That sets up a battle between two potential casino favorites for the Pope County license. While several companies may hope to build in the area, the need for official support from the county is a key barrier to receiving any meaningful consideration.

First, there are Cherokee Nation Businesses. The tribal group is once again looking to construct Legends Casino and Resort, but would presumably apply for a license as a single entity. That bid has the backing of Pope County Judge Ben Cross.

“They have a track record that is proven, and I am going to stick with a proven track record,” Judge Cross said, via KNWA Fox 24.

The Cherokee Nation will face its fiercest competition from Gulfside, which hopes to obtain a resolution of support from the Pope County Quorum Court, the other entity capable of providing such a letter. Gulfside says it has the best location, approximately midway between Little Rock and Fayetteville.

Both sides released statements on Monday praising the ARC for moving along with the process.

“We appreciate the ongoing efforts of the Arkansas Racing Commission and Attorney General’s office to ensure a smooth process with respect to issuance of the Pope County casino license,” Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garett said. “Having obtained the exclusive support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross as required by Amendment 100 and a resolution of support from the Pop County Quorum Court, we anticipate being the sole qualified applicant.”

Gulfside’s statement was more aspirational, as it has yet to secure the necessary resolution.

“We appreciate the Arkansas Racing Commission making it clear the application period will open Sunday and close on June 12,” Gulfside Casino Partnership counsel Casey Castleberry said. “Prior to the ARC’s deadline, we look forward to presenting our proposal to the Pope County Quorum Court and seeking a resolution of support.”

Each application will be graded by each of the seven ARC members based on four criteria. Each commissioner can award up to 100 points to each application, or up to 700 total. Applications will be ranked based on their total scores.

One other obstacle could stand in the way of a Pope County casino. A group known as Local Voters in Charge is collecting signatures in an attempt to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. 

The amendment would give local voters the ability to vote for or against casinos in their localities—something not in place under current state law.

"Unfortunately, Amendment 100 is flawed in that it left local voters out of the decision for a casino in their county, and Pope County voted heavily against Amendment 100,” Hans Stiritz, a spokesperson for Local Voters in Charge, said Monday. “It would be wrong to license and develop a casino without the direct support of local voters.”

Meet The Author

16 Years
Edward Scimia
Edward Scimia
Journalist Journalist

Ed Scimia is a freelance writer who has been covering the gaming industry since 2008. He graduated from Syracuse University in 2003 with degrees in Magazine Journalism and Political Science. In his time as a freelancer, Ed has worked for About.com, Gambling.com, and Covers.com, among other sites. He has also authored multiple books and enjoys curling competitively, which has led to him creating curling-related content for his YouTube channel "Chess on Ice."

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