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Casino ruling near; dispute set to continue

Losing side sure to appeal, says Pope County executive by Jeannie Roberts | May 4, 2021 at 7:12 a.m.
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

Regardless of whether a circuit judge rules Friday on the constitutionality of a casino endorsement letter from a former Pope County official, the outcome is certain, say some of the players: continued litigation.

"It would be pure speculation on my part to guess what may happen in court," Ben Cross, current county judge of Pope County, said Monday. "But one thing is relatively assured: It will be appealed again. I don't think anything will be resolved."

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox is set to consider whether letters from previous local officials endorsing Gulfside Casino Partnership meet the constitutional requirements of Amendment 100 that a casino applicant must have such backing.

The 2018 constitutional amendment legalized casino gambling in the state, including placing a new casino in Pope County.

The hearing -- set for 9 a.m. Friday in Fox's courtroom -- is closed to the public because of covid-19 restrictions.

When contacted, Gulfside attorneys declined to comment.

The case was filed by Gulfside in 2019 after its application was denied by the state Racing Commission because its letter of support was signed by then-County Judge Jim Ed Gibson, just days before his term expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

Last year, Fox denied Cherokee Nation Businesses' request to intervene in the case, saying that Legends Resort and Casino LLC, which is a limited liability company set up by Cherokee Nation Businesses, does not qualify as an applicant for the Pope County license.

While Cherokee Nation Businesses operates 10 casinos in Oklahoma, Fox said that Legends Resort and Casino LLC does not have any casino experience, as required by Amendment 100.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in February that Cherokee Nation Businesses has the right to intervene in the lawsuit. The case was sent back to Fox.

A representative from Cherokee Nation Businesses declined to comment.

In the Supreme Court ruling, Associate Justice Shawn A. Womack concluded that "Cherokee has a 'recognized interest' in the litigation based on its interest in the license, having its license application considered, and its contract with Pope County."

Gulfside was eventually awarded the Pope County casino license by the Racing Commission after Fox ruled that a state law and a Racing Commission rule were unconstitutional.

Arkansas Code Annotated § 23-117-101 and Casino Gaming Rule 2.13.5(b) state that a letter of support from the county judge or a resolution of support from the quorum court is required and must be signed and dated by the county judge or quorum court "holding office at the time of the submission of an application" for a casino license.

Amendment 100 says only that an endorsement is required.

Fox said in his ruling that the state law and the gaming rule added extra requirements that were not allowed to a constitutional amendment.

Scott Hardin, spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission, said he could not comment on the upcoming hearing.

"The Racing Commission as a policy does not comment on active litigation to which it is a party or potential action that may result from court rulings," Hardin said.

Initially, all five applicants, including Gulfside and Cherokee, were denied by the Racing Commission for failure to include a letter of support or Quorum Court resolution from officials in office at the time the application was submitted.

Cherokee Nation Businesses then garnered support from Cross, the current Pope County judge, as well as from the Pope County Quorum Court, and resubmitted its application.

In exchange for the county's support, the Cherokees provided a $40 million economic development agreement that will be disbursed upon receiving the Pope County casino license.

The Racing Commission compared both Gulfside and the Cherokee's applications and on June 18, selected Gulfside to build and operate a casino in Pope County based on its total score of 637 for Gulfside compared with 572 for the Cherokees.

Cherokee Nation Businesses' appeal of that decision was denied by the Racing Commission, spawning more litigation.

There are currently five cases in two counties regarding the Pope County casino issue.

Gulfside -- which operates a casino in Gulfport, Miss. -- proposed a $254 million casino and resort with 1,900 slot machines, 90 table games and 500 hotel rooms near Russellville north of Interstate 40, with additional investment and rooms within five years.

The Cherokees are proposing a $225 million casino and resort with 1,100 slot machines, 32 table games and 200 hotel rooms near Russellville off Hob Nob Road, also north of I-40.

In June 2019, the Cherokees announced that they are partnering with Legends -- a stadium management company founded by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late George Steinbrenner, who owned the New York Yankees -- to "manage the process for the design and development" of the Pope County casino should the tribe be awarded the license.

The casino issue widely divided Pope County's citizens even before the approval at the polls of Amendment 100.

The controversy led to a shakeup on the Pope County Quorum Court that resulted in six new members on the 13-member panel.

The Quorum Court quickly proposed a resolution asking Cross to rescind his letter of support for Cherokee Nation Businesses.

That resolution was tabled last month. It is on the agenda again for Thursday's Quorum Court meeting.

"According to the rules, it has to be brought back up after 30 days," Justice of the Peace Lane Scott, who proposed the resolution, said Monday. "You have to deal with it. It might be tabled again. You don't want to poke the bear in the eye if you don't have to. This issue is highly litigious. People are going to sue on one side or the other. Right now it's in the court's hands."

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