The fight over the fourth casino in Arkansas is heading for a court house.
Voters statewide approved casino gaming in last month's election, but the voters in Pope County - where one of those casinos would go - also spoke and said they want a local say in the matter.
Meanwhile, the outgoing county judge is wasting no time, announcing a deal with a casino operator from Mississippi. Judge Jim Ed Gibson thinks the lame duck move will win over everyone angry over the apparent end-run around a local vote.
“Personally I don't think a local vote matters,” Gibson said as he cleaned out his offices in the Russellville court house two days away from the end of his term. “We had a constitutional amendment and that's going to have to be handled in court.”
That court will have to handle the next big legal argument in Arkansas: Whose vote means more when it comes to making casinos legal?
“The idea that all of Arkansas would be voting on this and that people who didn't have to live with the consequences could vote to do this to Pope County just rubbed us wrong,” said Anna Stiritz, an attorney with Sanford Law Firm and a volunteer with the group opposed to placing a casino in Pope County. “The people said very clearly 'we want to decide this issue for ourselves.'”
On November 6, voters passed what is now Amendment 100 to the state constitution making casino gambling legal. Oaklawn Park and Southland Greyhound Park can expand, and Pine Bluff and Russellville can build from scratch. Hot Springs and West Memphis spoke years ago and Pine Bluff welcomed the Quapaw Tribe with open arms.
But Pope County said no, or at least let us vote again.
“People were saying this should be a local decision,” Stiritz said. “There are people who want a casino, who don't want a casino and who don't care, but there is a wide majority of people who believe this has got to be a county decision.”
Casino proponents pointed out before election day that the proposal, and now the amendment, doesn't call for any local votes.
That prompted Judge Gibson to roll the dice and announced the $250 million dollar deal with Gulfside Casino partners out of Mississippi. They operate Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport. The fact that the company plans more than a roadside bingo hall is something Gibson is counting on to sway opinions.
“There was a certain type of casino that they didn't want to see come to Pope County,” the judge said. “This group here, it's more or less a resort than it is a casino.”
“The county judge has seen what we have in mind,” said Casey Castleberry, a lawyer for Gulfside. “We have been in discussions with him since March, and we think that when people see that this is not what they expect, they will change their minds and come around to the good that can be done.”
But for opponents, there’s no getting around the fact that he appears to be going around voters’ wishes.
“If we said ‘hey let's put a coal burning power plant in downtown Jonesboro because the whole state will benefit from the tax revenue,’ and Jonesboro is like 'we don't want that.' But the state was like 'too bad. We all voted for it and now it's going to be sitting right beside your court house. Enjoy,” said Stiritz.
Casino opponents are asking a judge to block Gibson's support letter and state senator Breanne Davis is asking attorney general Leslie Rutledge to weigh in with an opinion on its validity.
Gibson’s replacement, Ben Cross said he would not support a casino based on the results in the county of the casino amendment and an ordinance demanding a local option.
The state Racing Commission is decide all the rules the new casinos will have to follow. They have not said what they will do with Judge Gibson’s letter beyond a ruling that letters made after mid-November are considered valid.
Castleberry said the Gulfside casino could be up and running by the fall of 2020 if the regulatory process goes smoothly.