Garland and Crittenden counties have long histories as hosts of gaming establishments. Jefferson County needs jobs. But Pope County?
Home to the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys, Arkansas Nuclear One and Lake Dardanelle, Pope County doesn’t naturally spring to the minds of most folks when considering where in the state to locate a casino.
As it turns out, Pope County voters didn’t think a casino was a natural fit either. They opposed Issue 4, which became Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, by a vote of 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent.
In addition, the county approved, with a vote of 68 percent in favor, an ordinance that requires a special election and voter approval before the county judge can issue a letter in support of a casino. Russellville voters elected as mayor a candidate who made opposition to a casino part of his platform.
On that letter of approval turns a tale that riled local residents and officials and attracted a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting of the Arkansas Racing Commission earlier this month. At the end of the year, the then-Pope County judge, Jim Ed Gibson, and the then-Russellville mayor, Randy Horton, both submitted letters to the commission backing a proposal from Gulfside Casino Partnership for a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in the county.
Amendment 100 requires that the casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties have support from either the county judge or the Quorum Court. And for a casino to be built within city limits in those counties, it also must have the mayor’s endorsement. But it seemed to some in Pope County that the two lame duck officials were trying to circumvent the wishes of the voters.
For his part, Ben Cross, who had no general election opposition and took office as Pope County judge on Jan. 1, told Arkansas Business he just wants to do what the voters want, and the voters don’t want a casino.
And former Russellville Alderman Richard Harris, who explicitly opposed a casino, defeated Mayor Horton Nov. 6 with 59 percent of the vote.
“One of the main reasons I ran for mayor is because I wanted to make sure that the people in Russellville had a candidate who stood firmly in opposition to the casino, no doubts in their minds where I stood,” Harris said. “And my supposition was that if they wanted the casino, then they wouldn’t elect me and I would be fine with that and I would move on and do my thing. If they did not want a casino, then I presented an option for the community.”
So, what’s wrong with a casino in Pope County?
“I just don’t think that’s who we are,” he said. “When I look at the mountains and the rivers and the lakes and the trails that we have to offer here, I just don’t think that a casino is necessarily a good fit.”
Harris, who retired as an engineer with Entergy in the nuclear operations field, added that “coming from a technical background, working in engineering services and things of that nature, I look at Arkansas Tech and I see Arkansas Tech putting out engineers and IT specialists, and those young people are graduating and leaving this area.
“And my desire is to attract the type of industry and jobs that will keep those people here. I don’t think a casino does that. A casino may offer a lot of jobs, but I don’t know that a casino offers the kind of job that an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer would cherish.”
Cross, who had served on the Quorum Court and is now retired as an assistant troop commander with the State Police, made his position clear in a December Quorum Court meeting, as reported by the Russellville Courier. He noted that the court had adopted a resolution in unanimous opposition to a casino and added, “So I, as your incoming judge, am not going to issue a letter of support to any gaming institution. That’s as simple as I can put it.”
Casino proponents tout the jobs a gaming project would bring, not just those employed in the casino and attendant lodging and restaurants but the temporary jobs that construction would generate.
But Cross told Arkansas Business that Pope County has almost no unemployment. “You cannot go from one end of town to the other without people needing help,” he said. “And I’m talking good jobs. I’m talking ConAgra, $22-an-hour jobs. I’m talking Rockline Industries. And so we have people right now willing to pay $20-plus an hour for jobs all day long. There is no unemployment problem in Pope County. Everybody who needs to work or wants a job, there’s a job out there. And it’s open right now. If you can pass a drug screen and a background [check], you can find good work around here.”
And indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pope County’s jobless rate stood at 3.9 percent in November, the latest figures available.
Why Pope County?
As for how Pope County came to be in the casino “crosshairs,” Cross told Arkansas Business there had been talk that some local businessmen were interested in bringing a casino to Pope County. He’d also learned that “out-of-state marketing groups” had conducted market analysis indicating the county might be a good spot for a casino because of its location and because it wouldn’t meet with opposition from Oaklawn Racing & Gaming, Southland Gaming & Racing or Native American groups with casino interests in Oklahoma.
But it was Nate Steel, a Little Rock lawyer and former legislator who represented Driving Arkansas Forward, the group that proposed and pushed the casino amendment, who had the answer to the question of why Pope County: The county was chosen through a process of elimination.
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Driving Arkansas Forward considered $100 million the minimum for development of a “resort-style casino because we wanted to make sure that these were going to be major tourist attractions and not some hole-in-the-wall with slot machines,” Steel said.
“With that $100 million investment, obviously you have to spread them out,” he said, meaning that the casino backers wanted to avoid opening more casinos than a location could support.
“We wanted to make sure we had a legally defensible basis, rationale, for where the locations went while at the same time spreading them out so we could clear that $100 million investment threshold,” Steel said.
Driving Arkansas Forward looked at two factors: a population sufficient to support a casino and economic need. The group also wanted to locate a casino in each quadrant of the state, and with Oaklawn occupying the southwest and Southland the northeast, that narrowed the choices.
In determining economic need, the group used the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s incentive tiers, which assign the state’s 75 counties one of four tiers, with Tier 1 counties being the most prosperous and Tier 4 counties the least prosperous. Jefferson County, in the southeast, soon came into focus.
But the northwest part of the state has few Tier 3 or Tier 4 counties, further limiting the choices. In addition, Driving Arkansas Forward didn’t want to locate a casino too near the Oklahoma border where it might compete with casinos in that state.
Eventually, “by a process of elimination, we ended up in Pope County,” Steel said.
And initially, he said, the group didn’t meet opposition there. “We heard from the mayor early on, Randy Horton, who ended up, unfortunately, losing an election over this issue,” Steel said. “But he was very interested early on.”
“I went and spoke to the Lions Club, for example, when Pope County was first named, and I don’t remember hearing any negative comments in speaking to that group,” he said. “It ended up, obviously, being poorly received, but that’s not the way it started out.”
So What Now?
So what happens now? No one appears to know. Clarksville, in Johnson County, has expressed interest in hosting a casino. And Gulfside has those two letters of support from the lame duck county judge and lame duck mayor for the casino in Pope County. A Gulfside lawyer didn’t return a call from Arkansas Business for comment.
The Arkansas Racing Commission is in the process of codifying the rules for licensing and operating the casinos and is taking public comments about them. Earlier this month, the commission proposed a rules change that would require letters of support from the quorum court, county judge or mayor in office at the time an application for a casino license is submitted.
Some observers think the Legislature, with a two-thirds vote of both houses, may be able to alter the amendment in a way that would let another Arkansas locale host a casino. And all the projections concerning the tax revenue the casinos would generate were based on the state having four casinos.
Cross, the Pope County judge, fully expects the issue to go to court. “I’m sure there will be litigation up and down the line.” But, he said, “I’ve told all groups involved, pro and against, I will follow the law.”