POPE COUNTY, Ark. – The ongoing saga of a casino in Pope County reached another hurdle Thursday when the casino’s license was denied in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

Judge Timothy Fox signed the order, which reversed the 2021 Arkansas Racing Commission’s decision granting a joint license to Legends Casino and Cherokee Nation Businesses. Fox found that Legends did not have experience conducting casino gaming and that the license only allowed a single applicant and not a two-party license, both terms of the licensing agreement.

In a March 2021 court filing, Gulfside Casino Partnership questioned whether the Legends/Cherokee license was proper. Gulfside, a Mississippi company, was one of the applicants who filed for a license to operate the Pope County casino during the May 2019 application period.

Legends/Cherokee had been granted a license from the commission in November 2021. Gulfside responded by asking the court to overturn the commission’s decision.

Cherokee Nation Businesses filed an appeal of the court’s decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court Friday.

“While the circuit court’s ruling is disappointing, in the interest of forward progress, we are pleased to have a decision,” CNB CEO Chuck Garrett said. “We remain confident in our legal position and will move quickly to have our appeal heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court.”

“After a lengthy circuit court process, we are eager to move forward. We remain very confident in our legal position and have filed a Notice of Appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court,” CNB legal counsel Dustin McDaniel added. “We will also seek an expedited briefing schedule in hopes of a timely decision and final resolution of this matter.” 

In 2018, Arkansas voted to approve four casinos in the state, with the facilities in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis all opening soon after.

In 2022, those three casinos contributed $83,227,390 in excise tax revenue to the state, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

While more than 54% of voters approved the casino measure in 2018, 60% of Pope County voters were against it. Even with the local hesitancy to the plans, applications for the Pope County license began coming in during May of 2019.

The license was originally granted to Gulfside to develop the casino, but that decision was challenged with detractors saying the letters of support for Gulfside application from the county judge and Russellville mayor who had since been voted out of office.

The license for Gulfside initially survived challenges from Cherokee Nation Businesses, but eventually the state supreme court ruled the letters of support were voided, leading to the license being pulled and awarded to CNB in November of 2021.

Gulfside filed their own opposition to the new plan, and another group of Pope County residents tried to get a measure on the 2022 General Election ballot to amend the earlier law that allowed for the casino in the first place.

That effort lost after a long political battle, but more than four years after the vote to bring the casino to Pope County, nothing has still been built.