The Pope County Quorum Court voted Tuesday to endorse a proposal presented by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma for the development of a $225 million casino resort just north of Russellville and Interstate 40.
Tuesday’s vote took place as part of a special meeting of the court and Pope County Judge Ben Cross.
The support for the Cherokee Nation’s plan did not come as a big surprise as news about Judge Cross’ decision to issue a letter of support for that particular project emerged over the weekend.
The Cherokee Nation Businesses, a holding managed by the Oklahoma-based tribe, is one of five contenders for the right to build a casino in Pope County. Two of the other runners in the race – Warner Gaming and the Choctaw Nation said over the weekend that they were informed by Judge Cross that it would be the Cherokee Nation’s proposal that would receive the letter of support.
The other casino license bidders said over the previous days that they would be disappointed if the reports from over the weekend proved true and that they expected a transparent selection process, as promised by Judge Cross, suggesting that the county judge and the Quorum Court might have negotiated with the Cherokee Nation behind closed doors.
The Letter of Support
Arkansas voters approved the development of two new casino resorts – one in each Pope and Jefferson Counties – on last November’s ballot. However, Pope County residents rejected the casino legalization measure and approved a special ordinance, under which county officials could not move ahead with supporting any casino proposal and bringing a casino in the region without a countywide vote.
Under Arkansas’ updated gambling law, casino license applicants are required to obtain letter of support by the county judge and county officials in order to be able to bid successfully. Gulfside Casino Partnership, one of the five bidders, managed to obtain such letters from outgoing officials late last year.
However, the state Legislature approved a measure earlier this year that stated that only current officeholders can issue letters of support.
In June, the Arkansas Racing Commission rejected all five bids for the development of a casino in Pope County as none of them had been endorsed by the county judge and local officials.
Judge Cross previously promised that he would personally review all applications and would meet with all applicants to discuss what would be best for the county. He also said that the process of selecting a project to back would be a public one for the sake of full transparency. The Tuesday announcement that the Cherokee Nation’s project would be endorsed prompted concerns that the judge might have forgotten those promises.
Eight of the Quorum Court’s 13 justices of the peace voted to sign the resolution supporting the Cherokee Nation’s proposal, four voted against it, and a single justice abstained. None of the other four projects was discussed during the special meeting.
Addressing reports about the selection process Judge Cross said Tuesday that he has “been very transparent” and that he has held multiple public meetings with “every side of this issue I can meet.”
Speaking with an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter earlier on Tuesday, the county judge denied the allegations that he told two of the competitors that he would endorse the Cherokee Nation’s plan, saying that Warner Gaming and the Choctaw Nation were mistaken.
The Cherokee Nation’s Proposal
On Monday, the Cherokee Nation and its partner, hospitality company Legends, released their vision for Legends Resort & Casino. The property will be located just north of Russellville and will feature a 50,000-square-foot casino with 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, a sportsbook with a high-end sports bar, a luxury 200-room hotel, an RV park with 100 spots, a 5,000-seat outdoor music venue, and multiple dining outlets, among other facilities.
The resort, if its development gets approved by the Arkansas Gaming Commission, is projected to generate $5 billion in economic impact for Arkansas over its first ten years and to create more than 1,000 jobs. Developers say that construction will take 18 months to complete. The Cherokee Nation and Legends plan to invest $225 million into the resort.
In its Economic Development Agreement that detailed the project, the Cherokee Nation said that it would contribute $38.8 million in an “economic development fee” within 30 days after all “litigation or administrative challenges” relating to the issuance of the Pope County casino license are cleared.
Interestingly enough, the host city of Russellville would not be among the five cities that are to share a $10 million portion of that economic development fee.
Commenting on their project being endorsed by the county judge, Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Shawn Slaton said that they were excite about Tuesday’s decision and that they “remain diligently focused on the future and continuing our collaborative efforts with local officials and the community at large.”
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