Enemies press their bet on Pope County casino

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A Pope County anti-casino group is rushing forward in a petition campaign to place a proposed constitutional amendment on next year’s state general election ballot that would remove the county as the one of the locations for a casino.

Grassroots Fair Play Arkansas’ effort continues despite an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling on Thursday overturning and overturning a circuit court ruling that declared a commission rule and the law of the commission unconstitutional. State that required letters of approval for casino licenses to come from local officials on duty at the time a license application was filed.

The decision essentially canceled a Pope County license application from Mississippi casino operator Gulfside Casino Partnership and left Cherokee Nation Businesses as the sole competitor.

“We started the petition this summer and we’re trying to keep the momentum going as much as possible through all other developments,” said Fair Play Arkansas committee spokesperson Hans Stiritz, who is also a member of the anti-casino group Citizens. for a better county of Pope.

Stiritz said the group were happy with the Supreme Court ruling because it eliminated at least one casino candidate.

“The ruling and the dissent underscore how poorly written and ambiguous Amendment 100 is,” Stiritz said. “Through Amendment 100, the state put the Pope County community in the hands of a few elected officials before the casino was even an issue the public could answer. Our petition campaign to remove the county from Pope of Amendment 100 is intended to remedy this. “

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

Pope County’s proposal, if approved by voters, would amend Constitutional Amendment 100, which was passed by voters in November 2018 to authorize a new casino in Pope and Jefferson counties, and allow the expansion of the game at Hot Springs and West Memphis racetracks. The amendment requires casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties to have the support of local authorities.

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

“It’s still too early to talk about numbers; we have several months before the submission deadline. Our effort is volunteer-driven and our team is passionate about this issue,” said Stiritz. “Everyone we speak to ‘understands’. They understand the injustice of the situation Pope County has been put into. Who would want their own community to be forced to accept a controversial game development that the community does not want? not – and that’s still illegal in 71 counties in Arkansas? “

An attempt to put the question on the ballot last year was unsuccessful, hampered by the covid-19 pandemic and legal hiccups.

Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in an email Friday that his main focus now is to take the next steps with the state attorney general’s office and the Racing Commission “to get our license.” The group is aware of Fair Play Arkansas and continues to monitor the group’s efforts.

“While years of delay have not been ideal, one positive element has been the opportunity to educate the community around which 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 that a casino complex would bring to the local economy, ”said Garrett.

“While we respect the opinions of those who are not in favor of Pope County casino gambling,” he added, “we appreciate the overwhelming change we have seen in sentiment and are optimistic that the efforts of this group will not be successful. “

Pope County has been in conflict since the casino issue was introduced four years ago. County voters strongly rejected Amendment 100 at the ballot box and approved a since-repealed county ordinance requiring officials to seek voter approval before supporting a proposal.

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

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

Since the passage of Amendment 100 in 2018, members of the Pope County Majority have devoted time and attention to defending “a casino operator who had a proven track record, solid finances and a history of service as a dedicated community partner, ”said Debbie Ann Williams, a member of the group.

“Thanks to the judge [Ben] Cross, its extensive scrutiny of casino operators and its ultimate endorsement of the businesses of the Cherokee Nation, the Supreme Court ruling means Pope County is finally near the end of a long journey and the choice of the community operator ultimately prevailed, ”Williams said. I’m excited to finally be at this point in the road and look forward to CNB breaking new ground on Legends Resort & Casino in the very near future. “

Gulfside Casino Partnership had obtained the Pope County license after suing the Racing Commission in Pulaski County Circuit Court in 2019. Gulfside’s original application was denied by the Racing Commission because its letter of support had was signed by former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson a few days earlier. his mandate expired on December 31, 2018.

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

Cherokee Nation Businesses then submitted an application to the Racing Commission after securing support from Cross, the current Pope County judge, as well as the county quorum court.

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

It’s unclear where the Pope County gaming license issue goes from here.

The Supreme Court has 18 days to issue a warrant to the lower court ordering the case to be quashed and dismissed.

Scott Hardin, spokesperson for the Department of Finance and State Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission, said on Friday the commission would likely hold a meeting to discuss the matter after the warrant was issued.

While voters in Arkansas determined that 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 and extremely competitive process to secure the 4th and latest license, ”Hardin said in an email. . “This license has been the source of several lawsuits over the past two years. The citizens of Pope County have remained engaged in this process from day one, expressing their support, their opposition and certainly their frustration. Through the monthly reports of the three active casinos. , we see hundreds of millions of dollars wagered every month in Arkansas. “

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

Saracen Casino Resort is open and operating at Pine Bluff.

Since 2018, 13 lawsuits have been filed regarding the Pope County license. Four are still pending, but two will be closed once the Supreme Court renders its mandate.

The other two – one filed on October 13, 2020 by Cross and one filed on December 27, 2019 by James Knight of Citizens for a Better Pope County – are both against the Racing Commission.

Cross’s trial, which is in Pope County Circuit Court under Special Judge William Randal Wright, argues that Gulfside is not a qualified plaintiff.

The Citizens for a Better Pope County lawsuit, which is in court for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, said the letters of support were invalid because an ordinance that has since been repealed requires the matter to be brought before the courts first. local voters.

“This case is still open. It goes beyond Gulfside’s request and calls into question the legitimacy of the entire application and licensing process,” Stiritz said. “We argue that the Racing Commission set rules for dealing with applications, but did not follow its own rules. Additionally, there are unanswered questions about the actions of elected officials in Pope County. that the entire application process should be aborted and restarted. “

Cross said whether he drops his lawsuit will depend on granting the license to Cherokee Nation Businesses.

“Once CNB is licensed to practice and the other remaining Pulaski County cases have been resolved, I expect the local case will be rendered moot and dismissed,” Cross said.

Garrett said businesses in the Cherokee Nation will begin construction once the remaining legal hurdles are removed.

“We expect this to take place before the 2022 general election,” Garrett said.

Pope County District 12 Justice of the Peace Joseph Pearson, who sponsored a recent quorum court resolution berating Cross for his role in the controversial casino issue, said the way was not clear.

“We were waiting for this decision and we were kind of hoping it would clarify things,” Pearson said. “There are, but now it’s: will the racing commission say, ‘Now are we going to speed up licensing to the Cherokees’ or are they going to say’ OK. has been a real mess. We have a lot of problems. We’re just going to go back to the beginning and start this process over again. I have no idea what their plan will be. “

The Pope County Quorum Court has seen a turnover among its members in the last election, and the current body immediately issued a resolution opposing the arrival of any casino in the county.

“Our constituents voted against, so personally I tried to defend that vote. We kind of got past that because there is a letter for the Cherokees,” Pearson said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the Racing Commission does to see how to approach this. I think if they license the Cherokees we have no recourse. Our share is minimal at this point.”


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