After a Wednesday meeting that was closed to the press, a group of Pine Bluff ministers announced their opposition to a casino being located in the city.
The Rev. Stephen Harrison, who is the lead pastor for Family Church and vice president of the Pine Bluff Faith Based Coalition Ministerial Alliance, said the vote was unanimous to oppose not only a casino in the city but also Amendment Four, which would allow casinos at the horse race track in Hot Springs, the dog track at West Memphis and casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties.
“An outside group, from outside the state, was able to get enough signatures to get this on the ballot and it wouldn't matter if everyone in Jefferson County opposed it if they get enough votes statewide,” Harrison said. “It's not Jefferson County deciding for Jefferson County.”
Regarding the meeting being closed to the press, Harrison said meetings of the group are scheduled each month, and Wednesday was the regular meeting day.
“We put out a notice so the pastors can find out about the meeting,” Harrison said. “We usually don't have press there, but this was a hot topic and we didn't want people to get caught off-guard and say something while thinking out loud that could be misinterpreted.”
Harrison said the group represents 65 to 70 churches in Pine Bluff of all denominations, black and white, and added that the ministers had a lengthy discussion that touched not only on the moral and ethical issues but also on the potential economic benefits.
He said the group looked at different counties where casinos had been built and were operating and found that property values declined, suicides were up and bankruptcies were also up.
“It's not like Pine Bluff would be a destination casino,” Harrison said. “Most of the patrons at an area casino come from 60 to 70 miles away. They're not going to fly in here, spend the night at a hotel and fly out.”
Despite television commercials promoting the idea that revenue would help repair the state's roads, Harrison said: “There is no promise that it's going to help fix roads.”
Harrison went on to say that a recent letter from the Arkansas Highway Department confirmed that.
Calling casino's “greed-based business,” Harrison said they take “advantage of the poor.”
“There's only so much disposable income that's available to people and if they're spending part of that gambling, what happens if they don't have enough money for food or to pay the rent?” Harrison said.
Nate Steele, counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward, the organization that sponsored the initiative, responded to Harrison by saying, “Respectfully, Rev. Harrison is fundamentally incorrect about the impact Issue 4 would have on Jefferson County. Jefferson County and Pine Bluff stand to gain a thousand new jobs and millions in additional tax revenue should the measure be approved. Furthermore, it is critically important to note that no operator will receive a license without the express support of elected officials at both the city and county level. We believe local leaders will see significant support from the people of Jefferson County for just that on Nov. 6.”
Harrison said a second lawsuit has been filed against the proposal and the issue might not make it onto the ballot. The second of those suits was filed by a group called Citizens for Local Choice, which asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to disqualify the proposed constitutional amendment from the November ballot. The group was formed to campaign against the measure, which election officials last week approved for the November ballot.
The lawsuit claims the proposal doesn't inform voters it would effectively overturn the Arkansas constitution's ban on monopolies.
Another group led by Pine Bluff pastor Derick Easter filed a lawsuit earlier this week with the high court aimed at striking the casino measure.
“It may or may not get on the ballot but we're going to continue to make public statements,” Harrison said. “As pastors, we're going to ask out church's to fight against it and vote against it.”
The nearest casino to Pine Bluff is roughly two hours away in Greenville, Mississippi.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.