The Pope County casino pot nears a boil with attack on one potential applicant and meeting Wednesday - Arkansas Times

Monday 13th April 2020

The Arkansas Racing Commission will meet by telephone at 11 a.m. Wednesday to consider the Cherokee Nation's argument that there's "good cause" to reconsider its initial application to operate a casino in Pope County.

A stink bomb was thrown into the proceeding today by a letter describing in unflattering terms some of the past activities of parties related to another would-be casino operator, Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi.

Recounting the full tortured tale of a casino for Pope County takes about two full columns of conventional newspaper type.

Let me abridge it to say that a judge has ruled Gulfside was right, that the Racing Commission didn't have the power to say casino applicants had to have approval from current city and county officials to be considered for a permit. Gulfside had submitted an application including some local officials, particularly the county judge, who left office at the end of 2018.

Another circuit court case, however, seemed to open the door for reconsideration of original permit applications for "good cause." Does the Cherokee Nation's subsequent endorsement by local officials following a failed initial application -- in return for a $38 million benefits package -- constitute "good cause"? Gulfside will argue it doesn't and that it alone has the only bona fide application.

The Racing Commission still hasn't decided whether to appeal Judge Tim Fox's order invalidating the commission rule requiring approval of current officials. It could do that Wednesday. Or it could approve the Cherokees' good cause excuse and approve them. Or it could throw open the process to all five original applicants to make a "good cause" plea, though only Gulfside or the Cherokees can offer local approval at this point. Or, it could give the permit to Gulfside, but I'd be surprised at that option at this moment.

Into this today comes a copy of a letter from Thomas Akin of Russellville to Chris Olson, a member of the Russellville City Council. Olson has proposed a resolution for the City Council to "welcome" Gulfside. It doesn't have a legal effect on the casino permit hunt. But it adds to pressure he's been putting on the Cherokees, reportedly along with Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville), to show a little financial love for Russellville in a benefits package. The Russellville mayor declined to participate in meetings on the public benefits package and wasn't specifically included. It would, however, get quite a lot from shared services, such as ambulance, that the Cherokee money would help.

Akin is a contractor. He is also a former member of the Arkansas Racing Commission.

His letter was provided to media by County Judge Ben Cross, who has endorsed the Cherokees.

It's a recitation of Texas and Mississippi gambling activities and lawsuits and controversies involving owners of Gulfside. It includes among others the assertion that Gulfside hasn't treated its employees as kindly as some other casino operators in the pandemic crisis.

I'll not delve into all the particulars, being unable to vouch for the specifics, though I'd guess Akin had some quality research help in putting this four-page research document together. Copies went to, among others, Alex Lieblong, current Racing Commission chair. Read it here. It will be in the public record.

In an open competition, the record of casino operators would seem to be a relevant consideration in awarding a permit. It might even be relevant in considering only Gulfside, should its argument of being the sole qualified applicant prevail.

Forgot to mention: All casinos in Arkansas are currently closed during the coronavirus crisis. Also forgot to mention: Another major player in this fight is a group, still fighting in court, that opposes ANY casino permit in Pope County by ANYONE.

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