Two Native American tribes triumphed last week when the Arkansas secretary of state’s office said enough signatures had been gathered to put a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot and let voters decide on legalizing casino gambling.
The Quapaw Tribe and Cherokee Nation each have given more than $1 million to support the measure, which would allow casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties and expand the kind of casino gambling seen at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Park Gaming & Racing in West Memphis.
John Berrey, the chairman of the Quapaw Tribe, said he and the Oklahoma tribe founded Driving Arkansas Forward, the group behind the proposed amendment, “to increase the value of gaming and entertainment in the state.”
Berrey said he brought in the Cherokee Nation, also from Oklahoma, and has worked with Oaklawn, which offers horse racing, and Southland, which has greyhound racing, to get the proposal approved. Oaklawn and Southland now offer electronic gambling but not casino games. The amendment also would permit betting on sporting events.
If voters approve the amendment, which will be on the ballot as Issue 4, the Quapaw Tribe will apply to the Arkansas Racing Commission for a license to place a casino in Pine Bluff, Berrey told Arkansas Business. The Quapaws own and operate the 350-room Downstream Casino Resort in Oklahoma.
“We’re very successful in the gaming entertainment business,” Berrey said. “We think that Jefferson County has a great need for some economic development opportunities.”
Berrey said the tribe has hired renowned architect Marlon Blackwell of Fayetteville to design the casino.
The Cherokee Nation will pursue a casino in Pope County, according to a statement from Shawn Slaton, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses. He said the casino would trigger economic development and bring more jobs to the area.
“The decision ultimately lies in the will of the people of Arkansas,” Slaton’s statement said.
Cherokee Nation Entertainment, a subsidiary of Cherokee Nation Businesses, owns and manages the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, which features about 450 rooms.
This latest effort to expand casino gambling is opposed by one of the usual suspects: the Family Council of Little Rock, headed by founder Jerry Cox.
“Everybody knows that with casinos the house always wins,” Cox said. “These tribes apparently have a financial interest in the effort. … And we expect them to spare no expense in trying to get this passed.”
He said the tribes aren’t primarily interested in helping the state increase its tax revenue, despite Driving Arkansas Forward’s statements in its promotional material. Cox said Oklahoma tribes want to move into Arkansas simply to expand their markets.
“They’re coming into Arkansas hoping to make more money,” he said.
Berrey said he’s not focused on groups opposed to the amendment. Instead, he’s focused on the “very positive beneficial opportunity for people that need opportunity in an underserved community.”
The Driving Arkansas Forward campaign features ads that say, “Better roads. More Jobs. Lower Taxes.”
But the Arkansas Highway Commission released a statement last month noting that “the proposal does not direct any of the revenue to be generated from the casinos to our state’s highways, despite what some of the promotional ads are implying.”
The Highway Commission said it doesn’t have a position on gambling. “The fact is, the proposed Constitutional amendment regarding casino gambling is not a highway funding proposal,” according to the statement.
Nevertheless, the proposal obligates the casinos to pay taxes to the state of Arkansas of 13 percent on the first $150 million of net casino gaming receipts and 20 percent on receipts above $150 million. The general fund would get 55 percent of the tax revenue, the city where the casino is located would get 19.5 percent, and the county would get 8 percent. Oaklawn and Southland also would benefit because 17.5 percent of the casino tax revenue would be earmarked for the Racing Commission to use for purses for live horse racing and greyhound racing.
Games of skill at Oaklawn and Southland are taxed at 18 percent of the net wagering revenue.
Jennifer Hoyt, a spokeswoman for Oaklawn, said in a statement, “The Oaklawn Jockey Club has determined to take no position on Issue 4 Proposed Constitutional Amendment and will be making no further comments.”
A spokesperson for Southland did not return a call for comment.
Berrey, however, said Oaklawn and Southland nevertheless support the proposed amendment.
“It expands their products in what they could offer, and it helps them with any ambiguity in their current games of skill parameters,” Berrey said. “But also we think it will put an end to the every two years of people making a run at expanding gaming within the great state of Arkansas.”
Nate Steel of Little Rock, an attorney for Driving Arkansas Forward, said in news release last week that having casinos in Arkansas would boost the state’s revenue.
“Right now, about 30 percent of our state’s residents regularly visit casinos outside Arkansas,” he said in the news release. “It’s time to keep that money where we live to support our economy, improve our infrastructure and create new jobs.”
In July, Driving Arkansas Forward was given an additional 30 days to gather more signatures to reach the approximately 85,000 signatures from registered voters needed to secure a ballot spot. On Wednesday, the secretary of state’s office said the group had met that threshold.
Contributions to Driving Arkansas Forward of Little Rock
|Downstream Development Authority of the Quapaw Tribe||Quapaw, Oklahoma||$1,196,000|
|Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC||Catoosa, Oklahoma||$1,050,600|
|Gulfside Casino Partnership LLC||Gulfport, Mississippi||$10,000|
|Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers||Henderson, Nevada||$10,000|
|Don Tilton||Little Rock||$500|
Source: Driving Arkansas Forward of Little Rock financial report on file with the Arkansas Ethics Commission
Pine Bluff Site Optioned
The Quapaw Tribe’s Berrey said the Pine Bluff casino would be modeled after the tribe’s Oklahoma casino, the Downstream Casino Resort.
The Pine Bluff casino would have about 350 hotel rooms, five to seven restaurants, an entertainment facility and a spa.
The casino also would have about 70,000 to 80,000 SF of gambling space. In addition, the grounds would feature museums devoted to the history of the blues and to Native Americans and African-Americans in the Jefferson County area.
Berrey declined to say where in Pine Bluff the casino would be located.
“We have a site that we’ve got an option on, but we’re not disclosing it at this time,” Berrey said.
“I don’t want to create land speculation and create myself problems until … the ballot initiative passes.”
If the proposed amendment passes in November, the Arkansas Racing Commission will issue the licenses to operate a casino in Jefferson and Pope counties.
Oaklawn and Southland would be awarded their licenses without having to apply.
Obtaining a casino license requires the operator to demonstrate experience in conducting casino gaming, according to the ballot title.
The Family Council’s Cox said he thinks the proposed amendment used language specifically to allow the Oklahoma tribes to be selected. One entity can’t operate both casinos.
To obtain a casino license, the applicant also will have to submit a letter of support from city and county officials in the communities in which the casino will be located.
Cox said one particularly egregious feature of the measure is that it permits casinos to be opened in Pope and Jefferson counties even if the voters in those counties reject the amendment.
Randy Horton, the mayor of Russellville, said that if Pope County residents don’t approve the amendment, he and the Pope County judge have agreed not to write a letter of support.
Horton said neither he nor the city of Russellville has a position on the proposed amendment. “It’s totally up to the voters to decide,” he said. “It’s the people’s right, and I support it.”