The Arkansas Supreme Court will soon decide which of two gaming groups will build the state’s fourth casino, in Pope County.
Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi received a casino license from the Arkansas Racing Commission last year, but Cherokee Nation Businesses has challenged a letter of support for Gulfside signed by Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson 10 days before his term in office expired Dec. 31, 2018.
The Supreme Court opened its session on Thursday and is expected to rule quickly.
The Racing Commission first denied Gulfside’s bid, citing rules requiring local endorsements to come from the county judge or quorum court in office when license applications are filed. But a lower court ruled those requirements unconstitutional, finding that rules were improperly added to the state constitutional amendment on gaming that voters approved in 2018. The amendment requires a letter of support but doesn’t lay out conditions for submission. Gibson was out of office when Gulfside submitted its license bid in May 2019.
After the lower court ruling, the license was granted in June 2020 to Gulfside, which operates Gulfport’s Island View Casino Resort, which boasts the most gaming floor space in Mississippi and nearly 1,000 hotel rooms.
CNB has 10 casino properties in northeast Oklahoma, including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tulsa. A CNB spokesperson hailed the “unwavering support of the incumbent Pope County judge, Ben Cross,” and said CNB reached a binding economic development deal with Pope County in August 2019 that includes an upfront investment of more than $38 million, as well as a guaranteed minimum project investment of $225 million. The Pope County Quorum Court recently admonished Cross for his actions in the case.
“We were the first to envision a casino-style resort for the River Valley,” said Casey Castleberry, counsel for Gulfside Casino Partnership. “It’s why Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gipson chose to give us his letter of support over others who asked,” including CNB.
Castleberry said the Mississippi operator is confident in its case, including that Gibson’s letter satisfies all legal requirements.
Both groups have opened offices in Russellville, Gulfside’s last month and CNB’s in September of 2019.
Gulfside, planning a $254 million complex called River Valley Casino Resort, enlisted Nabholz Corp. of Conway and AnderCorp LLC of Gulfport to lead construction. The project will include 80,000 SF of gaming space and more than 1,500 permanent jobs, officials said.
The $225 million CNB project, Legends Resort & Casino, envisions 200 hotel rooms, 50,000 SF of gaming and more than 1,000 permanent jobs. Billing itself as “the right choice for Pope County,” CNB has engaged CDI Contractors of Little Rock, which completed the Saracen Casino Annex in Pine Bluff in October 2019. Nabholz and Suffolk Construction of Dallas built the grand $350 million Saracen Casino opposite the annex.