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Foes pressing their bet on Pope County casino

Petition drive seeks to let voters decide by Jeannie Roberts | October 23, 2021 at 4:24 a.m.
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

A Pope County anti-casino group is moving full steam ahead on a petition drive to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the state's general election ballot next year that would remove the county as one of the locations for a casino.

The effort by the grassroots group Fair Play Arkansas continues despite an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling Thursday that reversed and dismissed a circuit court ruling that declared unconstitutional a commission rule and state law that required that letters of endorsements for casino licenses came from local officials in office at the time a license application was submitted.

The ruling essentially knocked out an application for the Pope County license from Mississippi casino operator Gulfside Casino Partnership and left Cherokee Nation Businesses as the sole contender.

"We launched the petition this summer and we're trying to keep the ball rolling uphill as much as we can through all the other developments," said Fair Play Arkansas committee spokesman Hans Stiritz, who also belongs to the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County.

Stiritz said the group is pleased about the Supreme Court decision because it knocks out at least one casino applicant.

"The ruling and the dissents highlight just how poorly written and ambiguous Amendment 100 is," Stiritz said. "Through Amendment 100, the state put the Pope County community in the hands of just a few public officials who were elected before the casino was even an issue that the public could respond to. Our petition drive to remove Pope County from Amendment 100 is intended to remedy that."

[DOCUMENT: Read the Arkansas Supreme Court's ruling in the casino license dispute » arkansasonline.com/1022casinoruling/]

The Pope County proposal, if approved by voters, would amend constitutional Amendment 100, which was passed by voters in November 2018 to allow a new casino each in Pope and Jefferson counties, and allow the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis. The amendment requires the Pope and Jefferson county casinos to have the backing of local officials.

The group must collect at least 89,151 signatures of registered voters, or 10% of the votes cast for governor in the 2018 general election, to qualify for the ballot.

"It's still too early to talk numbers; we have several months to the submission deadline. Our effort is volunteer-driven and our team is passionate about this issue," Stiritz said. "Everyone we talk to 'gets it.' They understand the injustice of the situation that Pope County has been put in. Who would want their own community to be forced to accept a controversial gambling development that the community doesn't want -- and that is still illegal in 71 counties in Arkansas?"

An attempt to get the issue on the ballot last year failed, hampered by the covid-19 pandemic and legal hiccups.

Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in an email Friday that its primary focus now is navigating the next steps with the state attorney general's office and the Racing Commission "to obtain our license." The group is aware of Fair Play Arkansas and continue to monitor the group's efforts.

"While years of delay has not been ideal, one positive has been the opportunity for community education around who CNB [Cherokee Nation Businesses] is as a community partner, how we operate and our commitment to safety and security, not to mention the overall benefits a casino resort would bring to the local economy," Garrett said.

"While we respect the opinions of those not in favor of casino gaming in Pope County," he added, "we appreciate the overwhelming shift we have seen in sentiment and are optimistic efforts made by this group will not be successful."

Pope County has been in conflict since the casino issue was introduced four years ago. The county's voters soundly rejected Amendment 100 at the polls and approved a since-repealed county ordinance requiring officials to seek voter approval before backing a proposal.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at arkansasonline.com/casinos]

The anti-casino group is countered by pro-casino group Pope County Majority, which has long been a cheerleader for Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Since Amendment 100 passed in 2018, members of Pope County Majority have dedicated time and attention to advocating for "a casino operator that had proven experience, strong financials, and a history of serving as a dedicated community partner," said Debbie Ann Williams, a member of the group.

"Thanks to Judge [Ben] Cross, his extensive vetting of the casino operators, and his ultimate endorsement of Cherokee Nation Businesses, the Supreme Court decision means Pope County is finally near the end of a long journey and the community's choice of operator ultimately prevailed," Williams said. "I am excited to finally be at this point in the road and can't wait for CNB to break ground on Legends Resort & Casino in the very near future."

Gulfside Casino Partnership had been issued the Pope County license after suing the Racing Commission in Pulaski County Circuit Court in 2019. Gulfside's initial application was denied by the Racing Commission because its letter of support was signed by former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson just days before his term expired Dec. 31, 2018.

The Racing Commission did not open the first application period until May 2019.

Cherokee Nation Businesses later submitted an application to the Racing Commission after gaining support from Cross, the current Pope County county judge, as well as from the county's Quorum Court.

Cross wrote a letter of support for Cherokee Nation Businesses after he negotiated a $38.8 million economic development agreement with the business.

It's unclear where the issue of the Pope County gambling license goes from here.

The Supreme Court has 18 days to issue a mandate to the lower court ordering the case reversed and dismissed.

Scott Hardin, spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission, said Friday that the commission will probably set a meeting to discuss the issue after the mandate is issued.

"While Arkansas voters determined the state would have four casinos when the casino proposal was approved in late 2018, three are in operation today due to the high-profile, extremely competitive process to obtain the 4th and final license," Hardin said in an email. "This license has been the source of multiple lawsuits over the last two years. Citizens of Pope County have remained engaged in this process from day one, expressing support, opposition and certainly frustration. Through the monthly reporting from the three casinos that are in operation, we see hundreds of millions of dollars wagered monthly in Arkansas."

The gambling operations in Hot Springs and West Memphis have undergone significant expansions, while Saracen Development LLC, owned by the Quapaw Nation, holds the Jefferson County gambling license.

Saracen Casino Resort is open and operating in Pine Bluff.

Since 2018, there have been 13 lawsuits filed concerning the Pope County license. Four are still pending, but two will be closed after the Supreme Court issues its mandate.

The remaining two -- one filed Oct. 13, 2020, by Cross and one filed Dec. 27, 2019, by James Knight of Citizens for a Better Pope County -- are both against the Racing Commission.

Cross' lawsuit, which is in Pope County Circuit Court under Special Judge William Randal Wright, contends that Gulfside is not a qualified applicant.

The Citizens for a Better Pope County lawsuit, which is in Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen's court, said the letters of support are invalid because a since-repealed ordinance requires the question to first go before local voters.

"This case is still open. It goes beyond Gulfside's application and questions the legitimacy of the entire application and licensing process," Stiritz said. "We submit that the Racing Commission established rules to process applications, but then failed to follow their own rules. Further, there are unanswered questions about elected officials' actions in Pope County. We think the whole application process should be scrapped and restarted."

Cross said whether he drops his lawsuit will depend on if Cherokee Nation Businesses is awarded the license.

"After CNB receives licensure and the other remaining Pulaski County cases are resolved, I anticipate the local case would be rendered moot and dismissed," Cross said.

Garrett said Cherokee Nation Businesses will commence construction once the last legal hurdles are cleared.

"We anticipate this taking place prior to the 2022 general election," Garrett said.

Pope County District 12 Justice of the Peace Joseph Pearson, who sponsored a recent Quorum Court resolution scolding Cross for his part in the contentious casino issue there, said the path is unclear.

"We were waiting for this ruling and we were kind of hoping it would clarify things," Pearson said. "It has some, but now it's a question of: Is the Racing Commission going to say, 'Now, are we going to fast-track giving the license to the Cherokees,' or are they going to say, 'OK. This has been a real mess. We've got a lot of issues. We're just going to go back to the beginning and start this process over.' I have no idea what their plan will be."

The Pope County Quorum Court experienced turnover among its members in the last election, and the current body immediately issued a resolution in opposition to any casino coming to the county.

"Our voters voted against it, so personally, I have tried to defend that vote. We're kind of past that in a way because there is a letter out there for the Cherokees," Pearson said. "We'll just have to wait to see what the Racing Commission does to see how to approach this. I think if they give the license to the Cherokees, we don't have any recourse. Our part in it is minimal at this point."

Print Headline: Foes pressing their bet on Pope County casino

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