Cherokee Casino Plan for Arkansas Solidifies Front-Runner Status

Posted on: June 7, 2024, 09:42h. 

Last updated on: June 7, 2024, 10:15h.

The Cherokee Nation has long been considered the favorite to secure the final remaining casino license the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) can issue. The tribe’s commercial business unit hardened that position on Thursday evening.

Pope County casino Cherokee Gulfside
The Pope County Quorum Court voted against endorsing a casino proposal from a Mississippi-based entity called Gulfside Casino Partnership. The decision means only a casino pitch from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma qualifies for review by the Arkansas Racing Commission. (Image: Pope County Livestream)

The Pope County Quorum Court on Thursday heard presentations from Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Entertainment and Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership. The two companies are seeking the casino license earmarked for Pope County that state voters authorized through a ballot referendum in 2018.

ARC requires that submissions be accompanied by a letter of support from Pope County Judge Ben Cross or an endorsement from the Pope County Quorum Court. Without such backing, casino schemes won’t be considered by the state gaming regulatory agency.

Judicial Support

Cross continues to maintain his support for the Cherokee Nation casino blueprint. The $300 million proposal is called Legends Resort & Casino.

Legends is targeting Russellville for a 50,000-square-foot casino with around 1,200 slot machines, 32 live dealer table games, a sportsbook, and a poker room. Around 200 hotel rooms would accompany the gaming venue.

Gulfside presented a larger investment — $405 million — and a bigger casino at 70,000 square feet featuring 1,500 slots, 50 tables, a sportsbook, and 300 hotel rooms. The company has tried to sweeten the deal by offering Pope County and Russellville a one-time $65 million payment upon receipt of the gaming license.

On Thursday night, however, the Pope County Quorum Court decided to reissue its support of the Cherokee development. The outcome means the Legends casino bid is the only qualified plan to go before ARC.

Our more than $300 million project is not just an idea. It is a full-fledged economic development plan that has been in the works for over five years with the required support of Pope County leaders,” said Cherokee Nation Entertainment President Mark Fulton.

“Our shovel-ready development positions us to be open and operating more than a year ahead of any other proposals. Legends Resort & Casino is a world-class entertainment destination that will bring thousands of jobs to Pope County and provide more than $5 billion in economic impact over the first 10 years,” Fulton added.

Possible Roadblock

With the Gulfside bid called River Valley Casino Resort presumably disqualified, the Cherokee plan will likely receive the Pope County casino license after ARC reviews the project. There is, however, one final hurdle the casino must avoid before breaking ground.

A citizen-led ballot referendum campaign called Local Voters in Charge is seeking to annul the Pope casino license through another amendment to the Arkansas Constitution. After years of legal tussling, the political committee wants voters to weigh in come November about whether they think the Pope County casino license should be rescinded.  

Pope County was one of 11 counties that voted against the 2018 casino question, but since the state’s 64 other counties voted in favor of it, the referendum passed to allow casinos in Pope, Crittenden, Jefferson, and Garland counties.

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (R) has approved the ballot wording. For the referendum to reach the ballot this November, the campaign must collect 90,704 signatures and submit them to Griffin’s office for validation before July 5.

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