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River Valley Gamble (Hunter Field Editor’s Note)

Hunter Field Editor's Note
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“Pope County casino” — I’m not sure that there are any three words that elicit more groans around the state Capitol and Russellville.

We are now firmly in year five of trying to award Arkansas’ fourth and final casino operating license. As of this writing, the state Racing Commission was preparing to try to award the license for a third time, though I admit I’ve lost count. The Cherokee Nation’s business arm was poised to receive the license to open and operate Legends Resort & Casino, given that it is the only group with the requisite written support of current Pope County elected officials. I will note, though, we’ve thought that before only to have the courts step in.

What has transpired during the last five years has been a dizzying legal saga over the lucrative license. The Racing Commission and the judiciary have taken turns tripping over themselves. Lawyers and consultants have been happy to submit a steady stream of invoices, and residents of Pope County have found themselves caught in the middle of a high-stakes game of tug-of-war that they never signed up for.

Ever since We the People voted to allow full-fledged casinos into Arkansas in 2018, the state just hasn’t been able to get it right in Pope County. After this and the rollout of medical marijuana a few years earlier, it’s becoming a trend for the state to struggle to implement citizen-initiated legislation.

The lawyers have mucked it up, and I don’t really blame them. It’s good work if you can get it.

But it’s been pretty clear to me for the last few years that the license was going to the Cherokee affiliate. Just as I don’t really blame the lawyers, I don’t blame Gulfside and other hopeful operators or competitors for fighting, but for better or worse, the county judge and members of the Pope County Quorum Court long ago made up their minds.

The Racing Commission expects to reissue the license in the coming months. Meanwhile, canvassers are gathering signatures in hopes of qualifying a constitutional amendment for November’s ballot to revoke the provision in the 2018 amendment that allows a casino in Pope County, though I would be surprised if that measure makes the ballot.

When a casino does open, it will undoubtedly produce a windfall of tax revenue, some jobs and some economic development. The question is as it has always been: at what cost?

I find the philosophical debate at the heart of casino legalization to be interesting.

On one hand, I tend to take a libertarian stance toward vice issues, like gambling, marijuana and alcohol. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of handing someone a lit match to torch their life savings.

But the people spoke, and it’s time to proceed.

Email Hunter Field, editor of Arkansas Business, at hfield@abpg.com
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