Mississippi casino operator Gulfside Casino Partnership sued the Arkansas Racing Commission on Thursday afternoon just after the commission refused to reconsider its decision to deny the company a license to operate in Pope County. At the same meeting, the regulators opened a 90-day window for taking another round of applications for the Pope County license.
Both actions came just two days after the Pope County Quorum Court voted 8-4-1 in a special meeting Tuesday to back Cherokee Nation Businesses — one of five rivals competing for the license — and Legends Resort and Casino partnership as the company that justices of the peace want to build a casino and hotel in the county.
Also, Gulfside Casino Partnership asked the Pulaski County Circuit Court for an injunction barring the commission from awarding a casino license until the legal challenge has been resolved. The company claims the Racing Commission does not have the authority to define the minimum qualifications for a casino gaming license and their decision to deny Gulfside’s request was unconstitutional.
At issue is whether an applicant has the support of local officials, as required by Amendment 100 of the Arkansas Constitution. Gulfside's application included letters of endorsement from local officials right before they left office in December. The commission denied Gulfside’s application as incomplete on June 13, due to the failure of having a letter of support from the current Pope County Judge or a resolution of support from the current Pope County Quorum Court. The commission did not make a decision during its July meeting.
“Gulfside’s letters of support are valid, its application is complete, Gulfside is entitled to a license to operate a casino in Pope County, and the Racing Commission’s denial of Gulfside’s application should be reversed,” the lawsuit stated.
“Until that legal process plays out, we don’t know yet if the license will go to Gulfside or Cherokee. If Gulfside loses its lawsuit, the license will go to Cherokee,” Justice of the Peace Doug Skelton said.
"Gulfside is the only Pope County applicant that timely complied with every requirement of Amendment 100," Casey Castleberry, Gulfside's attorney, said in a statement. "We are disappointed by the Racing Commission's decision but believe we have a strong case to appeal its denial during the judicial process. When we receive the license, we look forward to building our first-class resort and fulfilling our commitment to be a strong partner to the River Valley."
Furthermore, the Racing Commission rebuffed a request from Cherokee Nation Businesses to cap the open window for new applications at 10 days instead of 90 days. The commission agreed in June to open the 90-day window if an applicant stepped forward with the required letters of support.
Commissioner Steve Landers, who owns several car dealerships in the state, told Cherokee Nation attorney Scott Richardson that he wished people "would come buy a car and not shop" around, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "The thing is, I think we all need to relax for a minute," Landers said. "This is a good thing for the people of Pope County. It's a good thing for the people of Arkansas."
Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong told Richardson that the 90-day period is necessary to allow others the same opportunity afforded the previous applicants. "I understand y'all have been through the dog-and-pony show probably pretty rigorously for the last couple of weeks, but, again, to have that door suddenly open, then everybody else find out and more details of it, I think the more light and transparency we can show them, the better," Lieblong said.
Commission attorney Byron Freeland said the 90-day window would begin once he could give public notice, which he hopes is in Sunday's newspapers classifieds section.
Amendment 100, which was passed by state voters in November, allows new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties if they have the support of local officials. The amendment also allows Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand their operations into full-fledged casinos, but they aren't required to have local endorsements. The amendment also allows sports betting.
Amendment 100 was defeated by Pope County voters, who also approved an initiated county ordinance that said an election must be called to allow voters to decide if they want officials to back a casino applicant. But no special election was called, and no action was taken on the ordinance at Tuesday's Quorum Court meeting. Arkansas Code Annotated 14-14-918 allows a quorum court to repeal or amend an ordinance by two-thirds vote of all members.