Arkansas casino filings, table games at starting gate

FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.
FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

The Arkansas Racing Commission is on track to begin accepting casino license applications by early May, while the state's two racetracks can start adding table gambling next month after commission approval, a state spokesman said Friday.

The casino licenses would be sought for Pope and Jefferson counties, as allowed under a new constitutional amendment. The amendment also allows the two racetracks, in Hot Springs and West Memphis, to upgrade their gambling operations to casinos.

Multiple applications seeking a casino license in Pope County will be submitted even though they will lack the constitutionally required endorsements from local government officials, Ben Cross, the county judge, said Friday.

Specific time frames for the application process will be discussed at a coming Racing Commission meeting, said Scott Hardin, spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission.

"The Racing Commission looks forward to opening the application process. We anticipate applications will be accepted beginning in early May," Hardin said in an email. "The timetable for review of those applications will be determined by the total number received. As Oaklawn and Southland plan to offer expanded table games in the near future, the Commission will formally license both locations at an upcoming meeting."

Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs, which offers thoroughbred racing, and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, a greyhound track, must submit plans for sports betting to the commission before they can accept sports wagers, Hardin added.

Oaklawn has posted signs on its property promoting live craps, live blackjack and sports wagering, saying they were coming in April. Southland's website states that it is offering craps, roulette and blackjack.

Messages left for an Oaklawn spokesman were not returned Friday.

Glen White, a spokesman for Delaware North, which has owned and operated the 63-year-old greyhound racing venue since the mid-1970s, said Southland is on target for live table games -- including blackjack, craps and roulette -- to begin in April.

"At this time we don't have an opening date for the sportsbook," White said. "We are working toward beginning construction this summer on the new gaming complex and hotel and will be adding surface parking this spring to offset the parking that will be lost from that construction."

State voters overwhelmingly approved casino gambling in November with the passage of Amendment 100, which allows for four casino licenses to be issued -- one each in Pope and Jefferson counties, which now have no legal gambling facilities; and one at each racetrack.

The Racing Commission on Feb. 21 -- just weeks before the March 14 deadline mandated by Amendment 100 -- approved more than 300 pages of rules to regulate casino gambling in the state. The Legislature gave its stamp of approval the next week.

Included in the rules was a change sparked by public outcry that proposals for casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties must include endorsements from the current county or city officials and can be submitted only at the time of the applications.

That threw out the endorsements from Pope County and Russellville officials who, just before leaving office at the end of December, submitted letters of support for a Gulfside Casino Partnership proposal to build a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in Russellville.

Messages left for Casey Castleberry, an attorney for Gulfside, were not returned as of late Friday. Castleberry told the Racing Commission previously that a lawsuit was likely if the endorsements from previous officials were not accepted.

Current Pope County officials -- Cross and Russellville Mayor Richard Harris -- said they will follow the will of their constituents. Pope County voters soundly rejected the measure in November and have lobbied hard to prevent a casino from being built there.

In a Friday telephone interview, Cross said at least five groups have pitched casino proposals to him recently, but he's not signing a "letter for anybody."

When asked for names of the five entities, the county judge said, "I probably don't want to get into who they are."

"They're very reputable vendors," Cross said. "I've been impressed by what they offered, but I'm still representing the 62 percent of the people who said they don't want a casino here. I will just let litigation take its course."

All of the five "expressed that they're going to show up without a letter of support to be told no," Cross said. "They all want a fair playing field."

Cross said he also declined to sign a "trigger" letter for any of the vendors, saying he would support the application only if Pope County voters were allowed to make that decision at the polls. In November, the county's voters passed an initiated ordinance that requires local officials to get voter approval before endorsing a proposed casino.

"These conditional ifs and buts letters just open a whole new avenue," Cross said. "There's nothing for me to gain out of this."

Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey said Friday that he has endorsements from current Jefferson County and Pine Bluff officials for the proposed Saracen Casino Resort -- named after a Quapaw chief who was buried in Pine Bluff.

The casino group has met with local contractors to assure them that they would be involved in the construction of the projected $240 million project that will be located near The Pines Mall, where Interstate 530 and several state and U.S. highways meet.

"We're on track. It's going very well," Berrey said. "We're still working on design, but it's going good. My hope is that the casino floor will be open within 10 months and then another six months for the rest."

The group is planning a town-hall meeting next month at the Pine Bluff Convention Center to kick things off.

"There is a lot of excitement," Berrey said. "We love the people of Pine Bluff, and we can't wait to get going."

The two racetracks -- which now offer electronic games of skill -- earlier announced multimillion-dollar plans to expand to full-fledged casinos.

Southland Gaming unveiled plans in late January for a $250 million expansion that includes a 20-story hotel, hundreds of new gambling machines and about 60 new live table games, a sports betting area, a new player lounge and center, and new dining options.

Oaklawn Park announced in November that it would invest more than $100 million to add another 28,000 square feet of gambling, a multipurpose event center, a luxury spa and a 200-room hotel.

SundayMonday on 03/17/2019

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