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Cherokee Nation awarded Pope County casino license

A rendering of Legends Resort & Casino in Pope County.
Legends Resort & Casino
A rendering of the casino planned for construction in Pope County.

The Arkansas Racing Commission has unanimously approved a license to build a casino in Pope County.

The Cherokee Nation Entertainment made a presentation to the commission at a meeting on Thursday, following years of legal disputes over the casino license and an ongoing ballot initiative to possibly prevent the casino from being built.

A spokesman for the Cherokee Nation Entertainment told the commission that they are in the planning phase, but could build the whole facility in 18 months. The state-of-the-art casino will be owned by Cherokee Nation, and go by the name Legends Casino.

In 2018, Issue Four was passed by Arkansas voters. It created four casinos in four Arkansas counties. While three have been built, the one in Pope County is still in flux. In 2019, a different company, Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership, was approved to build the casino in Pope County. They were later denied after the Arkansas Supreme Court determined they did not have the correct letters of recommendation from public officials.

The Racing Commission rejected Gulfside's application again at a June 12 meeting. Commission members said they could not approve the application because it again did not have the proper recommendation letters; one is needed from a local judge and another from the county quorum court. The commission voted unanimously to advance only the Cherokee Nation's application.

At the meeting, Thursday, Chuck Garrett CEO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment, presented his case for the casino to get final approval. He referenced his organization's long history of owning successful casinos in Oklahoma.

“We've achieved our success by doing business the right way,” Garrett said. “Honoring partnerships, being thoughtful planners and following through.”

He says they have proven financial stability; for example, Cherokee Nation Businesses continued to pay their 5,000 employees during the 10-week casino closures of the COVID-19 pandemic, and again after the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, which left many of their employees displaced.

Garrett said the large state-of-the-art facility will create 1,000 jobs, many of them local to the county. By law, the casino will also be mandated to give some of the casino revenue back to the county.

Garrett said the casino has completed the civil architecture part of the construction process and is now moving into the planning and permitting stages of building the facility. When asked if 18 months was a realistic timeline to build the casino, Garrett said it was.

“We have a lot of experience in developing casinos,” he said. “We think we can hit the ground running.”

Currently, a group is working to gather signatures for a proposed amendment that could stop the casino from going forward. The title of the proposed amendment is “An amendment requiring local voter approval in a countywide special election for any new casino licenses and repealing authority to issue a casino license in Pope County, Arkansas.”

It would require the Pope County Quorum Court to vote on whether they want a casino. Supporters of the amendment said they just want local control. In 2018, Pope County voted against Issue 4 by 60% to 39%.

However, the ballot proposal is being funded by the Choctaw Nation, which submitted an application to build a casino in Pope County in 2019. It was rejected.

When asked about the casino amendment, Garrett said “We're planning to proceed immediately, our intent is to deliver a casino project.”

Racing Commission member Jim Fox called the application “well thought out," rating it nine out of 10. The commission then passed the proposal unanimously.

Note: the article was edited the person giving the presentation was not Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., instead it was Chuck Garrett CEO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.