Casino gambling still a hot issue in Arkansas despite voter approval

(MGN Photo)

Casino gaming remains a hot issue in Arkansas even after voters approved to expand gaming in the state Tuesday night.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial results show Issue 4, an amendment to require licenses for casino gaming in Crittenden, Garland, Pope and Jefferson counties, passed with 54.07 percent of voters for the measure and 45.94 percent against it.

The measure allowed for expanded gaming at Oaklawn Jockey Club in Garland County and Southland Racing in Crittenden County.

"Since this was a question for voters, Oaklawn took no position prior to the election," said Jennifer Hoyt, the media relations manager with Oaklawn. "Now that voters have spoken, Oaklawn will move forward as legislation and regulation permits, and continue with preparations for the 2019 live racing season, which begins January 25."

"Southland Gaming & Racing is pleased to have the opportunity to enhance our entertainment and gaming offerings in West Memphis," said Corporate Communications Director Glen White. "We thank the voters for their trust in us. We will increase our investment, provide more jobs and continue to offer a great experience for our guests."

Wednesday, KATV got a look at renderings of a proposed casino from the Quapaw Nation, which seeks to obtain the casino operator license for Jefferson County. According to the rendering, the casino would be named Saracen Casino Resort.

Booker Clemons, Jefferson County judge, said the Quapaw design features a 12-story, resort-style hotel, which he claims will be a major attraction and shot in the arm for southeast Arkansas while speculating on potential conventions and meetings that could take place at the casino.

"How can you bypass something like this?" said Clemons, who said he fully supports the casino and will do everything in his power to make sure it comes to Jefferson County.

Clemons said, from his understanding, the casino plans to build on an empty tract of land across from the Pines Mall - land that Clemons said will have to be annexed into Pine Bluff.

"We will have to get papers filed with the clerk and there will have to be a hearing held so people can comment, express their opinion about annexing it," said Clemons.

Though Arkansans put in their votes, Family Council President Jerry Cox said the group remains committed to fighting casino gambling in Arkansas.

"This is a bad deal for Arkansas," Jerry said. "These casinos are going to be festering sores in our communities. They’re going to pull money out of the local economies and plunge some of our poorest families deeper into poverty. That’s why Family Council remains committed to opposing casino gambling at every possible turn."

In Pope County, the majority of voters were against Issue 4 with unofficial results showing 60.59 percent voted against it and 39.41 voted for it at 100 precincts reporting.

Pope County voters also passed a local option referendum, which aims to block Pope County officials from issuing letters of support for casino operator applicants, at nearly 70 percent, according to The Courier News.

"As part of the application process, in addition to paying a fee to apply, they have to submit a letter of support from the county officials if it's to locate in the county area or the mayor if it's to locate in the city limits," said Kristin Higgins, program associate for the U of A Division of Agriculture's Public Policy Center.

While it's not necessarily clear if Pope County's local referendum will prevent a casino from coming to Pope County, something the Family Council believes, Higgins said there still would have to be a casino interested in setting up in Pope County in the first place.

"The next step would be someone having to apply for a casino gaming license in Pope County," said Higgins. "So we don't necessarily know what would happen. Will there be anyone who applies for a gaming license?"

In the meantime, the Arkansas Racing Commission, the state agency charged with overseeing the voter-approved casino expansion, has 120 days to come up with a set of rules to help vet casino operator applicants. According to the amendment, the commission has until June 2019 to issue those casino licenses.

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