In a resounding declaration from the highest court of the land, the Arkansas Supreme Court has closed the doors on the Cherokee Nation Businesses’ (CNB) aspirations to revisit their thwarted casino ambitions. The justices delivered a clear message: the legal battle over the destined Legends Resort & Casino in the heart of Pope County is to progress no further through their halls.
It was just last year when the intricacies of legal process played out dramatically in the chambers of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox. He delivered a striking blow to CNB’s plans by finding fault with the Arkansas Racing Commission’s method of awarding a commercial casino license purportedly for Pope County to CNB. A legal skirmish instigated by a competing bid from Gulfside Casino Partnership cut to the heart of the matter – asserting that CNB’s bid ran counter to the stipulations set forth in Amendment 100 of the Arkansas Constitution.
Passed by the state’s electorate in November 2018, Amendment 100 was a game-changer, green-lighting a standalone casino operation in four distinct counties: Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope. Central to this amendment was a clause mandating the Racing Commission to consider only applications from standalone entities.
CNB’s plans, however, unfolded in partnership with the contemporaneously established Legends Resort & Casino, LLC. This cooperative endeavor was deemed out of bounds by Judge Fox, a decision that the state Supreme Court would later uphold in a decisive 5-2 ruling, choosing, just this past week, to sidestep any opportunity to review their verdict.
The consequences of this judicial dance have reverberated back to the beginning, with the highly coveted casino license making its return to the Arkansas Racing Commission. A new chapter in the casino saga is poised to commence with a fresh call for bids. Notably though, the $300 million Legends Casino still stands, a lone titan ready to reclaim its thwarted glory as the favored contender.
Fraught with complexity, the case entwines a second lawsuit that cuts to the core of the endorsement process for casino bids. As per the state’s judicial interpretation, either the incumbent county judge or the current county quorum court must lend their support to any bid. In a slim, yet impactful 7-6 vote last month, the Pope County Quorum Court signaled their endorsement for CNB. Lending further weight, Pope County Judge Ben Cross has placed his stamp of approval on the Legends project.
Entangled in this legal web is Gulfside, whose own casino dreams hinged on a parting endorsement from former Pope County Judge Ed Gibson. His last-minute nod for their $254 million River Valley Casino Resort venture, on the twilight of his tenure in 2018, was ultimately invalidated by Judge Fox in recognition of Amendment 100’s clear language, which aligns “the county judge” with the sitting official, casting aside the relevance of former officeholders.
Now, CNB faces the task of reapplication, an endeavor likely to see Legends Resort & Casino, LLC emerge anew from the company’s own stable.
Yet, the journey towards opening a casino in Pope County remains an odyssey over half a decade long. The other three counties authorized for casinos have since seen their gates swing wide to the gaming public, while Pope County’s remain firmly fastened. The controversy took root in 2020 with the revelation that Racing Commissioner Butch Rice exhibited bias in his evaluation of bids, scoring Gulfside’s proposal a flawless 100 and CNB’s a scant 29 out of a potential 100. The commission ultimately struck Rice’s skewed scores from the record, tipping the balance in favor of the Cherokees, a move that would ignite an ongoing legal conflagration.
As the shadows of legal contention begin to recede, eyes now turn once more to the Arkansas Racing Commission, the arbiter set to navigate the next phase of this high-stakes tale. With the departure of Rice from the agency and the bench’s decision rendered, the stage is set for CNB to pen the next chapter in the narrative of Pope County’s elusive casino license.