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Pope County judge endorses Cherokee Nation for casino license

A Cherokee Nation casino in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. The business was issued a license Friday by the Arkansas Racing Commission.
John Amatucci
Cherokee Nation
A Cherokee Nation casino in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma.

From Talk Business & Politics:

Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) looks to have an advantage in what will be a new process to grant a casino license in Pope County thanks to an endorsement letter from Pope County Judge Ben Cross.

An Oct. 26 Arkansas Supreme Court decision sent the casino license process back to the Arkansas Racing Commission, an agency of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that said Cherokee Nation Businesses was not a qualified applicant when granted a casino license in Pope County. The decision opens anew the application process.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox ruled Jan. 12 that Arkansas officials “unconstitutionally” granted a casino license to Cherokee Nation Businesses. Gulfside Casino Partnership had appealed a November 2021 decision by the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) to grant the Pope County license to Cherokee Nation Businesses and its Legends Resort and Casino company.

“Upon learning the conclusions of the split decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding the casino litigation affecting Pope County, I issued an updated exclusive letter of support as required by Amendment 100 to Cherokee Nation Businesses in the name of Cherokee Nation Entertainment, with the technical issues identified by the Court resolved,” Judge Cross noted in a statement issued Monday (Oct. 30). “The letter was submitted Thursday, October 26, 2023 to the Arkansas Racing Commission as defined by statute, and I hope will expedite the application process as defined by the Commission’s rules. It is my sincere hope the Commission views this as a measure of quick resolve and finalizes what has been an exhausting process to the citizens of Pope County.”

According to Amendment 100, any applicants would be required to obtain a letter of support from Russellville Mayor Fred Teague if the planned location is in city limits, and requires a letter of support from Pope County Judge Ben Cross or the Pope County Quorum Court.

CNB CEO Chuck Garrett issued this statement about Cross’ support: “We are honored to have the express and exclusive support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross. We will continue to follow the lead of the Arkansas Racing Commission and the Arkansas Attorney General’s office as they determine the next step in fulfilling Amendment 100. Our full commitment remains to build the first-class Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville and bring the jobs and economic growth Pope County and the state deserve.”

Casey Castleberry, attorney for the Gulfside Casino Partnership, provided this statement: “When given the opportunity, we will prove to members of the Quorum Court why Gulfside’s superior proposal is a better way to win for Russellville, Pope County and the entire state, just as we did in 2020 in our head-to-head presentation to the Arkansas Racing Commission.”

Amendment 100 was approved in 2018 by Arkansas voters. It established The Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment, which requires the Racing Commission to issue licenses to Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Southland Racing Corporation in West Memphis, and to entities in Pope County and Jefferson County. Casinos in three counties are operational: Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.

The initial Cherokee Nation casino proposal was estimated to cost $225 million and include 50,000 square feet of gaming space accommodating 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, a sportsbook located within a high-end sports bar, a luxury hotel with 200 rooms with a resort-style pool, spa and fitness center, 15,000 square feet of mixed-use conference and entertainment space accommodating 1,000 people, and an outdoor water park and music venue.

Gulfside had proposed a $254 million that would include 500 hotel rooms, 80,000 square feet of gaming space, dining options and outdoor entertainment space. The casino would add 1,500 jobs in the region and have a $60.5 million annual payroll.