Arkansas Casino Proposal Set for Latest Hearing
A proposed Pope County, Arkansas casino has a long way to go before it can take its first bet. Come Wednesday, it hopes to know when, or if, it will ever open at all.
Arkansas Racing Commission members will hear an appeal from Gulfside Casino Partnership over its rejected application to open a casino in Pope County. The commission had previously denied the application because it didn’t contain a letter of support from an elected local official currently in office, a requirement set forth in the state constitutional amendment passed by voters last fall that opened the way for the state’s first-ever casinos.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports Gulfside, as well as its supporters, argue a previous letter issued by an elected official already met that requirement, and a casino can take the next step toward its groundbreaking.
Arkansas Gaming Controversy Continues
Arkansas is one of the few remaining states without a casino. Though attitudes have shifted toward gaming support, the process to expand has not come easily.
Last November voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the state’s lone existing horse track as well as sole dog track to expand gaming options including traditional casino games. It also allowed for two additional jurisdictions to build casino gaming facilities of their own.
Though approved by a majority of voters statewide, the casino approval process has been slow moving at the local level.
The state racing commission enacted regulations that mandated an in-office elected official representing an eligible jurisdiction for casino gaming to write a letter of support in support of a would-be casino operator. That rule was not required in the voter-approved constitutional amendment, which just said a local official in office.
Controversy arose when Pope County officials in office at the time the constitutional amendment passed in November signed letters of approval, but officials in office as of today have not. According to the rules passed by the gaming commission, the casino application is not valid because it doesn’t have the support of a presently in-office official.
Gulfside is set to argue the approval from the officials in office in November of last year is sufficient to meet the requirements laid down by the constitutional amendment. The Democrat-Gazette reports this view is shared by an outspoken group known as “Pope County Majority,” which supports the casino. A Facebook group created in June for the group has more than 5,000 members as of July.
Wednesday’s ruling will help determine if casino proponents have their view upheld – or if they will need to push the current slate of elected officials to pen a letter of support.
Gambling Remains Divisive
The majority of voters in last year’s election supported the constitutional amendment to approve casinos. However, the majority of Pope County voters did not.
Arkansas remains politically and culturally conservative, which is reflected in its current apprehension toward gambling. Some religious leaders across the state opposed the original constitutional amendment and remain opposed to further casino gaming.
In the Natural State in particular, these views have carried over to elected officials. While neighboring states like Mississippi have embraced gaming, and popular regional teams like the Dallas Cowboys have formed partnerships with gaming companies, the current host of Pope County representatives eligible to file a casino support letter are reportedly disinclined to do so.
That means either the commission will allow the previously submitted letters by currently out-of-office officials to stand, or some present office holders will have to change their minds and send in a support letter.
If neither situation occurs, it appears a Pope County casino could be delayed until new officials are voted into office, which would take several more years at the earliest.
In either scenario, the casino will remain controversial. It remains to be seen whether or not Arkansas will approve its first stand-alone commercial casino.
Ryan Butler has spent more than a decade covering both sports and government and how the two intersect, working for numerous print publications and online sites, both as a writer and editor. During his career in journalism, Ryan has reported on everything from local to national politics but now focuses on the changing legal gambling landscape in American statehouses and its impact on sports betting and online casinos. He graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Journalism and a minor in sports management.