CASINO PITCH: John Berrey describes Quapaw casino plan to Racing Commission.

The state Racing Commission made quick work of five applications today to build a casino in Pope County. It said all were incomplete. This likely sets the stage for legal action.

A 2018 constitutional amendment legalized existing casinos at Southland and Oaklawn parks and allowed two additional casinos, one each in Jefferson and Pope counties.

Only the Quapaw tribe applied for a permit in Jefferson County. Five groups have applied in Pope County, but none was able to file a permit application with an endorsement from city or county officials, as Racing Commission rules require. The county judge and mayor of Russellville have said they wouldn’t endorse a casino proposal on account of a voter-approved ordinance that requires a local vote before local officials can approve a casino. Pope County voters were among the few counties that opposed the casino amendment.


The Mississippi casino operation, who had won support from the lame-duck Russellville mayor and Pope County judge before they left office at the end of 2018, has indicated it would sue over the Racing Commission rule to require approval from current officeholders. Among the legal questions is whether a local ordinance requiring a vote is allowed under the Constitutional amendment.

The Mississippi group issued a statement after the meeting from its attorney Casey Castleberry:


“Gulfside Casino Partnership is the only Pope County applicant that has complied with every requirement of Amendment 100. While we believe we should be granted a license, we will consider our options once we receive the written denial from the Arkansas Racing Commission with its rationale.”

Following quick disposal of the Pope County permit applications, the Racing Commission heard an extended presentation from John Berrey, the leader of the Quapaw casino, known as the Saracen Casino Resort. He emphasized it would be a pure commercial enterprise and not claim special status that sometimes apply to Indian casino operations. “We want you to have full access to our financial information and whatever you want to know about what we’re doing.” He acknowledged the operation would sell all taxes that apply to any commercial operation.

Commissioners had few questions and offered several comments of praise for Berrey and the Quapaws. Jack Foster, a former Pine Bluff alderman, objected to the permit approval. He said most of the 383 acres to be developed were acquired after the permit application was submitted May 1 and that a Market Street address given for the casino does not yet officially exist in city records. Thus, he argued, the application was incomplete and misleading. Byron Freeland, attorney for the commission, said the amendment requires only that a casino be within two miles of the city limits, which this property is. Freeland said it was irrelevant if the land was in the city.  Speakers in support included County Judge Gerald Robinson, who praised the 1,100 jobs it will create. The Downstream Development Authority application was approved without dissent. An opening in spring 2020 is planned.

The Racing Commission today also took up the proposal to add sports betting at Oaklawn Park, newly authorized by the amendment. Oaklawn previous had parimutuel wagering on horse and dog racing, including by Internet accounts, but this means it can take bets on football, basketball, baseball and other games.

Wayne Smith, general manager of Oaklawn, said sports betting would begin July 1. In the beginning, all the betting will be on the Oaklawn site. There will be no mobile  wagering in the beginning, but he said he hoped to add that before football season. That could include a request to allow people to make bets by phone or tablet from anywhere in the state.


The Oaklawn proposal was approved without dissent.