Arkansas Supreme Court Rejects Pope County Casino Appeal

Posted on: January 13, 2024, 09:47h. 

Last updated on: January 13, 2024, 09:49h.

The Arkansas Supreme Court will not hear an appeal petitioned by the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) regarding its planned Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville.

Arkansas Supreme Court Cherokee Pope County
The Arkansas Supreme Court will not take up an appeal from an Oklahoma tribe seeking to build a commercial casino in Pope County. The Cherokee Nation Businesses, however, is still the presumed front-runner for the gaming license. (Image: AP)

A year ago this month, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that the Arkansas Racing Commission erred in issuing a commercial casino license earmarked for Pope County to CNB, the commercial business unit of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In considering a lawsuit challenging the granting by a rival casino bidder, Gulfside Casino Partnership in Mississippi, Fox determined that the Cherokee bid violated rules established through Amendment 100 of the Arkansas Constitution.

State voters in November 2018 passed the amendment to allow a single casino in the counties of Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope. The casino bidding rules, however, required the state Racing Commission to only consider pitches from single entities.

Fox concluded that CNB applied as a consortium with a newly formed company called Legends Resort & Casino, LLC. The state Supreme Court last week opted to deny reconsidering the case. The high court in October upheld Fox’s decision in a 5-2 ruling.

License Returned to Racing Commission

With the Cherokee’s appeal formally settled, the Pope County casino license has been returned to the Arkansas Racing Commission. The state gaming regulator is expected to conduct a new bidding round, but the $300 million Legends Casino will presumably be the only qualified bid.

In separate litigation, it’s been determined through the Arkansas court system that bidders must have the support of either the sitting county judge or the present county quorum court. Last month, the Pope County Quorum Court voted 7-6 to endorse the CNB proposal. Pope County Judge Ben Cross has also backed the Legends development.

Gulfside previously applied with a letter of support from former Pope County Judge Ed Gibson, who issued his backing on the final day of his tenure before he exited the position in December 2018. Gulfside pitched a $254 million casino in Russellville called River Valley Casino Resort.

While Fox ruled against the Cherokees in January 2023, he also discredited the Gulfside plan when he decided that “the county judge” in Amendment 100’s language refers to the current judge — not a former county judge.

CNB will be expected to reapply as a single entity, likely as Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, which the company fully owns.

License Dilemma Continues

More than five years since Arkansans approved a casino in Pope County, the gaming license still hasn’t been issued. Meanwhile, casinos have opened in the three other counties.

The Pope County controversy began in 2020 when it was determined that Racing Commissioner Butch Rice had a bias in his grading of the Gulfside bid a perfect 100 out of 100 and the Cherokee plan just 29/100. The Racing Commission decided to exclude Rice’s scoring, which had tipped the overall score in Gulfside’s favor and opted to issue the license to the Cherokees.

That initiated the legal controversy, with Cherokee and Gulfside attorneys battling for the casino concession ever since. Ricer is no longer a commissioner on the seven-person state agency.

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