A statute that would amend Arkansas’ casino licensing protocols and allow the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) to conduct another bidding round for a gaming concession in Pope County has advanced in the state Legislature.

Arkansas casino Pope County Gulfside Cherokee
Downtown Russellville in Arkansas’ Pope County where two casino companies are bidding to open a gaming resort. The Arkansas Racing Commission is awaiting legislative approval before opening another Pope County casino license bidding period. (Image: Flickr)

The Arkansas Joint Budget Committee’s Administrative Rule Review Subcommittee on Wednesday advanced the proposed changes submitted by ARC to the full Joint Budget Committee. Last month, racing commissions, in consultation with Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office, amended the state’s “Application for Casino Gaming License and Renewal” document.

The changes seek to allow the Racing Commission to conduct a second bidding round for a casino license allocated for Pope County. The license was authorized in 2018 through a statewide ballot referendum.

ARC is hoping to reopen bidding for the Pope casino this summer, but the timeline is dependent on the Legislature signing off on the licensing changes.

License Stalemate

Arkansas voters approved a single casino in the counties of Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope.

The election question outcome allowed the state’s two racetracks to become full-scale casinos, Southland in Memphis and Oaklawn in Hot Springs. Jefferson County partnered with the Quapaw Nation, which built and opened a $350 million casino resort called Saracen in October 2020.

The process from authorization to realization for the Pope County casino development hasn’t progressed at nearly the same pace. The holdup arose from two companies making bids for the license — Cherokee Nation Businesses and Gulfside Casino Partnership.

The controversy began when ARC determined that one of its commissioners was biased in grading the two pitches. The commissioner’s awarding of the Gulfside plan a perfect 100/100 while giving the Cherokee blueprint only 29 points singlehandedly tipped the outcome in Gulfside’s favor.

Legal chaos ensued after the Cherokees sued ARC and the state. The Gulfside license was eventually rescinded after the case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled the Gulfside pitch was invalid because it wasn’t accompanied by a letter of support from the sitting county judge or current quorum court.

After ARC opted to give the license to the Cherokees, Gulfside sued on grounds that it too violated bidding rules by applying as a consortium, not as a single entity as required by the 2019 Arkansas Constitution amendment.  That case also reached the Supreme Court, which in January, ruled that Gulfside’s complaint was valid and the Cherokees didn’t qualify for ARC’s consideration because they applied for the license with a newly formed entity called Legends Resort & Casino, LLC.

Cherokees Favored

ARC’s changes to the bidding rules, if enacted by the Legislature, would seemingly leave only the Cherokees as a qualified bidder. Though the company will need to rework its application to a single entity, the tribe’s commercial gaming development unit has the support of both Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court.

ARC’s proposed adjustments to the process deal only with gaining authorization to reconduct a bidding period for the unissued license. They don’t recommend stripping the necessity of a bid only qualifying with an endorsement letter from the county judge or quorum court.

However, the rewrite did include specifying the judge and court must be the sitting judge or court at the time of the casino application submission. Previously, Gulfside included a letter of support from a former county judge.

The post Pope County Casino License Rules Advance in Arkansas Legislature appeared first on Casino.org.

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