UPDATED: Pope County chief asks county board to remain neutral in legal fight over casino license

Arkansas Supreme Court revoked license from Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends Resort and Casino on Oct. 26

By: - November 1, 2023 2:42 pm

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

UPDATE: The Pope County Quorum Court on Thursday night voted to table the resolution.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross will ask the county quorum court Thursday for neutrality in the ongoing legal debate over which company should receive a license to open a Russellville casino.

Last week, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that stripped the license from a Cherokee Nation Businesses partnership. Cross responded by sending the Arkansas Racing Commission a letter in support of CNB, as required for casino license applicants by Amendment 100 to the state Constitution.

Cross said in a Tuesday news release that he hopes the Pope County Quorum Court will pass a resolution he plans to introduce. Resolutions do not create policy but are meant to guide future policy decisions and express an elected body’s stance on an issue.

By passing the resolution, the court would indicate it “intends to not address the casino issue created by Amendment 100 in any manner, any further,” Cross said.

“In simple terms, if a Justice is hypothetically, ‘pro-casino,’ then this resolution serves to say that they are content with the process that has already occurred,” Cross said. “If a Justice is ‘anti-casino,’ then this resolution serves to reiterate [that] they intend to never support a casino in Pope County and potential applicants should refrain from soliciting them as well.’”

Since Amendment 100’s passage in 2018, the casino debate has bitterly divided residents and public officials in Pope County.

The high court’s Thursday ruling means the Arkansas Racing Commission will decide when to reopen the casino license application process. The commission has not yet set a meeting to take up the issue, Scott Hardin, spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said Tuesday.

Hardin said the commission received Cross’ letter but noted it did not accompany a casino license application since the application period is not yet open.

“DFA will be working with the Arkansas Racing Commission to open a new application window in a timely manner,” said Trent Minner, administrator of the department’s Regulatory Division, which includes the racing commission.



Arkansas voters approved Amendment 100 in 2018. It authorized two casinos at the existing racetracks at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis as well as one new casino in both Jefferson and Pope counties.

In addition to letters of support from local officials, the amendment requires license applicants to have prior experience operating a casino.

The Quapaw Nation obtained support from local officials around Pine Bluff and secured a license to build Saracen Casino Resort, which opened in 2020.

Meanwhile, CNB and Legends Resort and Casino have squabbled with Gulfside Casino Partnership over the Pope County license since 2020. The racing commission initially awarded the license to Gulfside, but the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that Gulfside’s letter of support from the previous Pope County judge was invalid because he was not in office at the time of the application.

Judge revokes Cherokees’ Pope County casino license; fight at Arkansas Supreme Court looms

The racing commission then voided Gulfside’s casino license and issued one to Legends and CNB. Gulfside filed a complaint in Pulaski County Circuit Court, and Judge Timothy Fox ruled in Gulfside’s favor in January. Fox determined that Amendment 100 prohibited multiple entities from holding one casino license and that Legends’ corporate structure meant that it did not have prior experience operating a casino.

Four Arkansas Supreme Court justices agreed with Fox on both issues in last week’s ruling. Two justices dissented, citing sovereign immunity — the principle in the Arkansas Constitution that prohibits lawsuits against the state. Chief Justice John Dan Kemp did not participate in the ruling.

CEO Chuck Garrett of CNB said in a statement last week that the organization is “disappointed” by the ruling but will do what it can to continue trying to obtain the casino license.

Garrett said Monday that CNB is “honored to have the express and exclusive support” of Cross upon receiving his letter of support.

Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry said the organization hopes to prove to Pope County officials that its “superior proposal is a better way to win for Russellville, Pope County and the entire state.”

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.