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story.lead_photo.caption Horses cross the finish line in the second race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs on the 2019 opening day of the track's live racing season.

A draft of the proposed application form for casino licenses in the state does not include a caveat that the constitutionally required endorsements must be from current local government officials, according to documents obtained Friday from the state Department of Finance and Administration.

The Racing Commission is set to consider at its meeting at 11 a.m. today at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs the proposed application form as well as a notice setting May 1-30 as the window to apply for casino licenses in Pope and Jefferson counties.

"At the close of the application period, each applicant will meet with the Commission prior to licensing decisions," finance department spokesman Scott Hardin said in an email. "The Commission is pleased to take this significant step in the implementation of Amendment 100."

The finance department oversees the Racing Commission.

The commission is also voting today on whether to allow the state's two racetracks -- Oaklawn and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis -- to begin full casino operations on April 1.

"Commission attorney Byron Freeland will present the Commission with draft casino licenses for Oaklawn and Southland," Hardin said. "If approved by the Commission, the licenses will be issued prior to April 1."

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas]

The four-page rough draft of the application form asks for basic information on the potential casino operator as well as a detailed explanation of the applicant's casino experience; timeline for opening the facility; proof of financial stability and access to financial resources; and plans for the proposed casino and its amenities.

A reminder is included that half of the $250,000 application fee will be retained if the applicant is not successful in obtaining a casino license.

The package includes a notice that all applicants will be interviewed by the Racing Commission, which will select the "most qualified applicant."

Item 12 on the draft asks applicants to attach "either a letter of support from the county judge or a resolution from the quorum court in the county where the proposed casino is to be located and, if the proposed casino is to be located within a city or town, also attach a letter of support from the mayor in the city or town where the casino applicant is proposing the casino to be located."

The application does not state the endorsements have to be from current office holders, which has been a point of contention since the November passage of Amendment 100. The amendment, which was an initiated proposal, authorizes four casino licenses to be issued -- one each in Pope and Jefferson counties, which now have no legal gambling facilities; and one at each racetrack.

"While the application does not directly reference it, a letter from current local leadership is clearly a requirement in the rules," Hardin said. "If an application is submitted that does not meet this requirement, it will not be considered by the Commission."

Amendment 100 requires the endorsements, but does not designate when they have to be submitted. Last month, the Racing Commission approved the regulations that included a rule -- changed after public outcry from Pope County residents -- to only accept letters of support from current office holders at the time of the application.

The change invalidated endorsements from Pope County and Russellville officials who, just before leaving office at the end of December, submitted letters of support for a Gulfside Casino Partnership proposal to build a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in Russellville.

Current Pope County and Russellville officials -- Ben Cross, the county judge of Pope County, and Russellville Mayor Richard Harris -- have said they will follow the will of their constituents. Pope County voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure in November and have lobbied hard against a casino being built there. Voters also approved an ordinance that any endorsement required backing by voters.

Casey Castleberry, an attorney for Gulfside, previously told the Racing Commission that a lawsuit was imminent if the endorsements from previous officials were not accepted.

Messages left for Castleberry were not returned as of late Friday.

Cross said previously that several groups wanting to build a casino in Pope County have pitched proposals to him and have said that they will submit a license application even without the constitutionally required endorsement letters.

Current Jefferson County and Pine Bluff officials have already given endorsements for the proposed Saracen Casino Resort, a $240 million project that will be located near The Pines mall, said Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey.

Both of the racetracks -- which now offer electronic games of skill -- will begin a combined $350 million worth of improvements and expansions after the Racing Commission gives the go-ahead.

Oaklawn has posted signs saying live craps, live blackjack and sports wagering are coming in April. A Southland spokesman said previously that the greyhound track is on target for live table games to begin in April, but it does not have a projected opening date for the sportsbook.

Metro on 03/23/2019

Print Headline: Casino panel to vote on start of operations in state

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