Pope County Casino Still on Hold

Pope County Casino Still on Hold
A rendering of Cherokee Nation Businesses’ planned $225 million casino complex in Pope County. The company is waiting to resolve remaining legal challenges before starting construction.

Cherokee Nation Businesses’ $225 million Legends Resort & Casino in Pope County, expected to create more than 1,000 direct jobs, remains on hold amid lingering litigation.

CNB has not scheduled a groundbreaking, but it expects an 18- to 24-month construction timeline once work begins after more than two years of local resistance, CEO Chuck Garrett told Arkansas Business last week.

“Our legal team is working to quickly dismiss all pending litigation. It is important to note that many aspects of timing are out of our hands and ultimately controlled by the courts,” he said. “We remain hopeful that all will be resolved in the coming weeks and months so that we can break ground on Legends Resort & Casino as soon as possible.”

Garrett said CNB has had productive initial meetings with city planners and is awaiting the results of the latest environmental traffic studies to move forward with buying the land it’s had options on since 2019.

CNB’s plans call for about 50,000 SF of gaming space featuring 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, a 200-room luxury hotel with a resort pool and spa, dining establishments with a total of 600 seats, and about 15,000 SF of multipurpose space. That space will have a separate entrance from the casino, too, “in an effort to attract family-style events,” he said.

The project site is off Hob Nob Road northeast of downtown Russellville, on 130 acres just north of Interstate 40 between the Weir Road exit to the west and Bradley Cove Road exit to the east.

But before workers arrive, CNB must resolve pending litigation that includes a lawsuit filed by John “Cliff” Goodin — described by his lawyer as a “concerned resident” of Pope County — and a motion filed by rival Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi.

Gulfside was initially awarded the Pope County casino license, but lost the license after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in October that its application was invalid because its required letter of support was signed by the outgoing county judge instead of the current county judge.

Goodin’s attorney, Jerry Malone, said his client’s claims are two-fold:

  • The applicant for the license was “Legends Resort & Casino LLC” but the license was awarded to “Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC/Legends Resort and Casino LLC.”
  • Legends has no gaming experience and therefore was an unqualified applicant.

Both circumstances mean the commission has not satisfied the constitutional requirements to operate a casino in Pope County, Malone said.

Gulfside attorney Lucas Rowan said in an email that “Legends Resort and Casino LLC — not Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) — was the applicant for the Pope County license. Legends has no casino gaming experience and, therefore, is unqualified. We expect this issue to be resolved through the legal system.”

That could take months. If either effort is successful, the entire licensing process could be reset.

Garrett said the casino is 100% owned and operated by CNB. Its casino license application states that CNB is the sole member of the Legends LLC, has more than 30 years of experience, and operates 10 casinos through its hospitality division, “Cherokee Nation Entertainment.”

CNB is calling Legends a “strategic consultant” that has worked with professional sports teams, collegiate partners, live events and venues. Co-founded by Dallas Cowboys owner and University of Arkansas graduate Jerry Jones, Legends served as project manager for the major renovation of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium at the University of Arkansas, Garrett said.

He said CNB has not worked with Legends previously but found partnering with the organization attractive because of the large size of the Pope County project and because it gives his organization access to a talented team with local knowledge.

Another group aims to halt the casino. The Fair Play for Arkansas committee is working to put an initiative on the November ballot that would remove Pope County as one of the four sites allowed to have a casino by the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018. The majority of Pope County voters opposed the amendment.

Garrett said CNB would not be deterred by that effort and is focused on moving forward with its development, which CNB said would have an estimated state economic impact of more than $5 billion during its first 10 years.

CNB would also fund local infrastructure and charitable causes through an economic development agreement with Pope County Judge Ben Cross. Under that agreement, CNB would make a $38.8 million upfront investment to be distributed to areas and agencies as determined by local officials and donate $2 million, plus adjustments for inflation, annually to local organizations.

CNB proposed the agreement as Cross was vetting five casino license applicants who were required to obtain either a letter of support from him or a resolution from the Pope County Quorum Court.

Garrett said Pope County is a good fit for CNB because of its proximity to the interstate and the market’s size similarity to nine of the 10 other markets in which his organization has operated. With the exception of the Tulsa market, all the existing markets it serves have populations under 200,000.

He expects the Pope County casino to draw people from both central and northwest Arkansas and said it seeks to be “the employer of choice in Pope County.” CNB already employs 200 Arkansans at casinos in Roland and West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma, which are near Fort Smith. CNB has had an office at 314 W. B St. in downtown Russellville since 2019 and it has heard from hundreds of potential new hires, Garrett said.