Former Russellville mayor touts Gulfside casino ahead of Racing Commission meeting - Talk Business & Politics

Tuesday 14th April 2020

Former Russellville Mayor Randy Horton is again pushing his belief that Gulfside Casino is the best option in the controversial effort to build a casino in Pope County. Horton's remarks come one day before the Arkansas Racing Commission is set to consider the fate of casino operations in the county. Existing Russellville and Pope County leaders have a different view.

The Gulfside Casino Partnership has proposed a more than $250 million casino resort that would create 1,500 jobs in Pope County.

"We're ready to immediately break ground on the $254-million River Valley Casino Resort, which will support 1,500 permanent jobs, $29 million in annual gaming tax revenue - 50 percent more than other proposals - and an estimated payroll of more than $60 million," Terry Green, co-owner of Gulfside Casino Partnership, said in a March 24 statement.

In November 2018, Arkansas voters approved Issue 4, now Amendment 100, to allow for expanded casino operations at Oaklawn (Garland County), Southland (Crittenden County) and new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties. The approval and licensing process in Crittenden, Garland and Jefferson counties was relatively quick and smooth.

Five casinos originally applied for licenses in Pope County, but were turned down by the Arkansas Racing Commission in June 2019. They included proposals from the Oklahoma-based Cherokee and Choctaw Nations; Gulfside Casino Group; Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group LLC, which would license with the Hard Rock Cafe brand; and the Robert and Ruth Kehl family of Iowa, applying as River Ridge Casino Resort.

Four groups did not have letters of recommendation or the quorum court provision, which led to their rejections from the commission. Gulfside did have letters of recommendation from Mayor Horton and Pope County Judge Ed Gibson. Those letters were received after Amendment 100 became law and before the former elected officials left office on Jan. 1, 2019, but the Racing Commission decided that a rule and new state law requiring the officials to be officeholders at the time of application required rejection.

To further confuse the issue, the Cherokee Nation Businesses received in August 2019 the blessing of the Pope County Quorum Court for a license to open the estimated $225 million The Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas just outside of Russellville city limits. The Cherokees' bid included a partnership with Legends, a stadium-management, sports, and live entertainment company founded in 2008 by Arkansas native and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late George Steinbrenner, former owner of the New York Yankees.

COURT RULING

However, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled March 24 that the commission was wrong to determine that the letters from Horton and Gibson were invalid. The judge sent Gulfside proposal back to the commission for consideration. Wednesday's (April 15) commission meeting could include decisions on whether to appeal the ruling from Fox, or move forward with the Cherokee/Legends proposal.

Scott Hardin, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), said a majority of correspondence from Pope County supports the Legends/Cherokee plan. The DFA is the parent agency of the racing commission.

"Following Judge Fox's March 24 ruling, the Racing Commission received feedback from more than 100 citizens of Pope County. The majority of this correspondence encourages the Commission to accept and consider the Cherokee application for good cause. There are also

several emails expressing general opposition to a casino in the county," Hardin said in a note to Talk Business & Politics.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross said in a letter to the commission that the Cherokee Nation proposal "is considerably more attractive" than the Gulfside deal. Russellville Mayor Richard Harris noted in his letter to the commission that people in the area are not in favor of any casino.

"Any portrayal that a particular casino operator is the preferred choice of Pope County is not based on any real data but is hyperbole and spin from those that desire a preferred outcome," Harris wrote.

HORTON Q&A

Following is a Q&A Talk Business & Politics conducted with former Russellville Mayor Horton.

TB&P: You wrote a letter of support for Gulfside Casino before you left office as Russellville mayor. Why did you decide to write that letter?

Horton: It was a heavy responsibility to be able to write a letter of support for a prospective casino operator for Pope County. Essentially, it boiled down to handpicking who I believed would bring the greatest economic benefits to our community. After extensive research and on-site visits, I determined Gulfside Casino Partnership's proposal far outpaced the others -- in jobs, annual gaming revenue and facilities. Without the Pope County Judge, however, it appeared my letter would be useless. So, when I learned Judge Jim Ed Gibson endorsed Gulfside in December 2018, I felt vindicated. That same week, I submitted my recommendation to the Racing Commission.

TB&P: What were the factors that led you to support Gulfside over other operators? Did you conduct due diligence before writing your letter of support? If so, what went into that?

Horton: It came down to jobs. As a lifelong Arkansan, I'm frustrated by seeing our state at the bottom of the charts for household income year after year. And Russellville is on the low side of that average. We need to help our citizens earn a better living. Based on the quality of its plans, estimated payroll and revenue projections, I believe Gulfside's proposal will help us achieve that. This, along with its commitment to community and reputation for operating safe, legal and respectable gaming centers, ultimately made up my mind.

When writing my letter of support, there was no guidebook or precedent to follow. While I met with every casino operator that contacted me, the most impactful information came from visiting the three main contenders' facilities. In May 2018, during an official trip to Las Vegas, I met with Warner Hospitality at its Hard Rock Casino. In June, while speaking at a New Orleans convention, I went to tour Gulfside's Island View Casino and met with Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes. My mother enjoys going to Oklahoma casinos, so I also spent several hours observing the Cherokee Nation Businesses' operations in Roland.

TB&P: You recently submitted another letter to the Arkansas Racing Commission about the Pope County casino license. Why did you feel the need to write this and what do you hope it does in terms of influence?

Horton: Unfortunately, there are some who have portrayed my letter of support as a knee-jerk, lame duck effort. There could be nothing farther from the truth. My decision was made after a thorough, deliberate, nearly year-long process, and I believe the Arkansas Racing Commission should take this into account when granting the casino license for Pope County.

TB&P: If you could get a mulligan on this whole effort and have the benefit of hindsight, what do you wish could be done differently?

Horton: There's nothing I have seen or heard, either during the process or after, that makes me wish I had supported another operator besides Gulfside. I do however wish I had the opportunity to better explain and show people what I had learned and how that played into my decision.

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