The state Racing Commission will hear an appeal of its decision to reject a casino permit application on Thursday. Five casino operators have filed applications to build casinos in Pope County. The appeal comes from Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, which included endorsement letters from local officials who left office last year in its proposal. Commission rules and state law say that applications, which weren’t accepted until this year, must include an endorsement from current city or county officials.
If the commission doesn’t accept Gulfside’s application on appeals, Gulfside has said it will sue and claim it meets the constitutional standard with letters from people no longer in office.
Meanwhile, local support for a casino in Pope County is intensifying, Jeannie Roberts reports today for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But County Judge Ben Cross has said repeatedly that he won’t endorse a casino proposal without hearing from local voters first.
Last November, Pope County voters passed an ordinance that requires voters to approve the county judge issuing a letter to the Racing Commission endorsing a casino proposal. The state constitutional amendment voters approved last November allows for casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties and for the expansion of racinos in West Memphis and Hot Springs into full casinos. It had no local option election provision, which means the Pope County ordinance is arguably unconstitutional.
The call for an election would have to come from the Pope County Quorum Court. The earliest election date possible would be March 2020.
From Roberts’ DG story:
“A month ago, the only people we were hearing from were people opposing the casino. It really looked like a one-sided issue,” [Justice of the Peace Ray] Black said. “Now we’re receiving multiple, multiple emails and letters from people wanting the casino here in Pope County.”
The tide seemed to change when five casino operators began courting residents with promises of multimillion-dollar resorts with sky-skimming hotels, convention centers, water parks and high-end restaurants, Black said.
“When we had the vote in November, I truly believed we were going to have a gas station with slot machines in it,” Black said. “I think everybody thought that. We never dreamed there was going to be a five-star resort in Pope County.”
Justice of the Peace Ernie Enchelmayer said a consistent theme in the dozens of emails he receives each day is that the voters simply didn’t know what they were turning down at the time.
“Then we get these architectural renderings from all these casino people wanting to move to Pope County,” Enchelmayer said. “That’s not what really we had in mind back then. It’s a different animal now.”
Other applicants include an Iowa casino owner; Warner Gaming of Las Vegas, which is partnering with the Hard Rock casino brand; the Cherokee tribe, working with an entertainment group that includes Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and the Choctaw tribe, operator of a nearby casino just across the Oklahoma border from Fort Smith.