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State agency to hear casino's appeal

In Pope County, residents divided by Jeannie Roberts | July 7, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

RUSSELLVILLE -- The next phase in the battle over a possible casino for Pope County takes place Wednesday, when a state licensing agency hears the appeal of one of the five rejected applicants.

The state Racing Commission's rejection on June 13 was based on a single point: No proposed Pope County casino operator met the commission's requirement that the application be accompanied by letters of support from current local officials.

In addition to what's happening at the state level, people on both sides of the issue still believe Pope County could end up with a casino.

On one side are people who urge local officials to endorse an applicant, and on the other side are those who say Pope County voters have already made their feelings known.

Last year, 54% of Arkansas voters approved constitutional Amendment 100, which allows new casinos to be placed in Pope and Jefferson counties and approved the expansions to full-fledged casinos for what is now Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis. But Pope County voters soundly rejected the notion.

The county voters took the additional step of approving an ordinance that any endorsement by local officials -- which is mandated by the constitutional amendment for casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties -- would require voter approval. Still, in their last days in office in December, Jim Ed Gibson, then-county judge of Pope County, and Randy Horton, then mayor of Russellville, issued letters of support for Mississippi casino operator Gulfside Casino Partnership.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at]

Of the five casino operators vying for Pope County's license -- Gulfside; Warner Gaming of Las Vegas; Choctaw Nation of Durant, Okla.; Cherokee Nation Business of Catoosa, Okla.; and Kehl Management of Dubuque, Iowa -- only Gulfside's application to the Arkansas Racing Commission included letters of support from local government officials.

The commission rejected the application, however, because the endorsements were not from current officials, as required by a rule passed by the Racing Commission earlier this year dictating that the letters must be from sitting officials at the time of the application submission.

The Racing Commission will hear Gulfside's appeal of the decision at its regular meeting Wednesday. Gulfside's attorney has said that there would be a legal battle if the Racing Commission does not accept the endorsements.

Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County, remains steadfast in his vow that he will not endorse any casino proposition unless it is the will of the people.

"Nothing has changed," Cross said. Representatives from "all five casinos make it to town on a regular basis. They revolve in and revolve out. It will take an election to see what the people of Pope County want before I make any moves on my part."

While the majority of voters were against a casino, others are vocal about their beliefs that such a facility would be an economic and entertainment boon for the county.

One of them, Kelly Jett, was easy to spot as she sat at a table in an old train car renovated into a Stoby's restaurant.

The tall blonde wore an oversized white T-shirt with "#POPE COUNTY MAJORITY" emblazoned across the front in bright red, all-capital letters. Pinned to the left was a white metal button with the same slogan in red and a large "50%+1" printed in black.

"A casino resort would be the best thing that happened to Pope County since the ANO came to town," Jett said, speaking of Entergy Corp.'s Arkansas Nuclear One.

The two-unit nuclear power plant on Lake Dardanelle fired up in Pope County in 1974 and provided hundreds of jobs and economic growth for Russellville, which now has a population of nearly 30,000.

The city -- which boasts numerous shopping venues, restaurants and an 11,000-student university -- is the hub for not only Pope County but also nearby areas like Yell, Johnson and Newton counties.

What the city is lacking, though, is entertainment and leisure offerings, Jett said.

She said an election is not necessary and even illegal because Amendment 100 requires only the endorsement of local officials and does not say when the letters should be submitted.

And she -- and the more than 5,000 friends she gained in the few short weeks since starting the Facebook group Pope County Majority -- are on a mission to prove to Cross that a casino is what the majority of Pope County wants and that he doesn't need an election to know that.

The group has regular in-person strategy meetings, visits every community event it can to spread the message and interacts voraciously on the Facebook page.

"Fire work show tonight a joke," Travis Ford, a former Russellville resident who now lives in Kalamazoo, Mich., posted on the Facebook page for Pope County Majority.

"I bet if we had a casino we could afford a really really nice firework show," Ronnie Wells of Russellville responded.

Russellville resident Drew Brent professed himself a casino-supporting Christian on the page and addressed the "morality argument" in the debate.

"People arguing the morality issue of a casino are ignoring other moral issues at hand," Brent wrote. "For example, the poverty rate of this county is estimated between 15-17%, but the unemployment rate sits at 3%. That means the majority of the impoverished are working, but not able to make their bills.

"For the sake of this argument, let's hypothetically assume the casino will offer a higher wage and hire locals, as was stated by at least one operator. Is it morally correct to deny someone a chance at getting out of poverty with a better, legal job because of the discomfort? Do we hold those who work at liquor stores and tobacco stores to the same standard because the products they sell could lead to addiction? Do we hold restaurant workers responsible for the sin of gluttony of their patrons? Do we hold some church attendees responsible for their consistent judging?"

The grass-roots group is bombarding Cross and county officials with emails and letters in support of the casino issue and asking the county leaders to issue endorsements without going back to the polls.

On the other side of the issue are individuals who say a casino will attract crime and even ruin to the community. Groups like Citizens for a Better Pope County say any official support for a casino must be subject to local approval.

Anna Stiritz, a Russellville resident and a member of Citizens for a Better Pope County, said her group and Pope County Majority agree on one thing: No election is necessary to gauge the will of the people.

"The voters already answered," Stiritz said, pointing out that 60% of the voters in Pope County said no to Amendment 100 last November. The local-option referendum passed by nearly 70% of the vote.

"This group shouldn't put Cross and our justices of the peace in this position. They need to follow the law and do what the voters told them to do," Stiritz said. "Facebook is not our democratic process."

Furthermore, she said, Jett and many others in the 5,202-memberPope County Majority group do not even live in Russellville.

Jett lives in Dardanelle, which is in nearby Yell County. She grew up in Russellville.

"You don't have to live here to fight here," Jett said.

One member, Joanna Fitzjurls, lives in Deltona, Fla., but grew up in Dardanelle. Still, Fitzjurls continues to blitz Pope County officials with emails imploring them to endorse a casino.

"After learning more about the proposals and the resorts interaction with the community, those who were against [it] clearly, want what Amendment 100 says they are entitled to," Fitzjurls said in an email. "Pope County Majority is a grass roots Facebook campaign and is open to everyone, even those who don't live in Pope County. Ms. Jett says no one fights alone, I have lived in this town for 40 years. My family, my life long friends and my community still live here, they needed me."

Jett said she has extensively reviewed the proposals from all five casino interests, but has yet to settle on just one.

Stiritz said that even though the issue is divisive, Pope County is not divided in its spirit of community.

"It's a touchy issue. I can see it heading that way, and that would be sad," Stiritz said. "We try really hard to be very reasonable in our advocacy. I think people do get their dander up and they mistrust other people's motives."

Jett said she and the group's other administrators run a tight ship and insist that negativity and personal attacks against local officials are forbidden.

"We're keeping it civil," Jett said. "We want to make change, not enemies."

Both say the fight will likely be a long one.

"It won't be over until we get that letter of support," Jett said.

"Everyone kind of acknowledges it's not going to be over until Pope County is out of [Amendment 100]," Stiritz said. "Or there's a casino here."

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