Cherokee Bet $35M on Land for Casino

Pope County Judge Ben Cross at the site of the proposed casino. He had no role in Cherokee Nation Businesses’ $35 million land acquisition, but he supports the project.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross at the site of the proposed casino. He had no role in Cherokee Nation Businesses’ $35 million land acquisition, but he supports the project. (Steve Lewis)

Pope County Judge Ben Cross, seen outside the Cherokee Nation Businesses storefront in Russellville, says the Legends casino will be a boon to the local economy.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross, seen outside the Cherokee Nation Businesses storefront in Russellville, says the Legends casino will be a boon to the local economy.
(Steve Lewis)

The striking of a proposed constitutional amendment from Arkansas’ Nov. 8 general election ballot has cleared the way for Cherokee Nation Businesses to accelerate work on a $225 million casino resort on newly bought land in Pope County.

An amendment that would have removed the county as one of four legal in-state sites for casino gambling won’t be voted on for two reasons: The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners rejected its ballot title, and the group backing it failed to turn in enough voter signatures to qualify. Two weeks ago, Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston informed the anti-casino group, Fair Play for Arkansas, that its initiative was finished.

“That obviously was an important hurdle for us to overcome, and we do believe this issue is put to bed,” said Chuck Garrett, 

CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses of Catoosa, Oklahoma, which has run casinos in eastern Oklahoma for decades. It recently announced its planned acquisition of the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, Mississippi, in a $450 million deal.

CNB completed acquisition of $35 million worth of land in the county last month and is “continuing to make a tremendous amount of progress on the actual project,” Garrett said. “It has been a lot of work.” Between January and July, CNB put together parcels from a dozen sellers totaling 182 acres north of Interstate 40 between the Weir Road and Bradley Cove Road exits.

That’s where Legends Resort & Casino will rise, said public relations representative Allison Burum.  

CDI Contractors of Little Rock will be the contractor, and Burum said the architect is based in Arkansas, “but we won’t be announcing that until later this year.” In 2019, CNB selected Legends of Frisco, Texas, as its hospitality and design partner.

Arkansas native and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones founded Legends with the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in 2008. Jones remained a 20% owner after Sixth Street Partners, a San Francisco investment firm, took a 51% stake in the company in 2020. 

The Russellville Planning Commission approved the casino’s zoning and land-use plan last month. 

Court challenges linger in Pulaski County over the Arkansas Racing Commission’s course reversal in granting the license to the Cherokees in November 2021. The commission’s 3-2 vote voided a decision that had given the last of the four casino licenses to a competitor, Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi. 

The commission granted Gulfside a license in 2020, but CNB challenged its requisite letter of local support, signed by Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson 10 days before his term expired in 2018. By May 2019, when license applications began, Ben Cross had been elected county judge, and under the subsequent state Supreme Court ruling, approval must come from active officials, “not a former or retired county judge.”

Cross, who won May’s Republican primary and faces no opposition to re-election, was pleased election officials heeded his testimony this month and rejected the ballot title as misleading. Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 had raised more than $3.8 million for the initiative, all donated by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which will face competition from a western Arkansas casino. The Choctaw Casino-Resort in Pocola is so close to the Arkansas line its parking lot is in Fort Smith, just 85 miles from Russellville.

A campaign to counter the Fair Play effort, the Arkansas Tourism Alliance ballot committee, was led by Little Rock lawyer and voter initiative expert David Couch. It raised $1.3 million through July, mostly from Cherokee Nation Businesses. 

‘Catalyst for Growth’

Cross says his constituents will benefit from the casino’s 1,200 slot machines, 32 table games and 200 hotel rooms, which he expects to attract businesses as well as players. “Upper-end” restaurants are already inquiring about opening in Russellville, he said. 

“We’re not talking about a temporary building with slot machines; it’s going to be a $225 million destination resort,” Cross told Arkansas Business. “It will be a catalyst for growth that’s not been realized in Pope County for decades, and it will bring increased tax revenue.”

Residents have also had a chance to see casinos prosper at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Southland in West Memphis and Saracen in Pine Bluff, the other Arkansas locations authorized for gambling by Amendment 100 of 2018, he said. 

More: Read the economic development agreement between Cherokee Nation Businesses and Pope County.

CNB’s lingering legal challenges focus on the licensing reversal. Gulfside is challenging the Racing Commission in Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s court, and Citizens for a Better Pope County is suing the panel in Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s court. “The latest suit was filed by John Clifton Goodin versus the Racing Commission,” Cross said. “Those are companion cases using the same attorney [Jerry L. Malone of Little Rock], and Judge Griffen is expected to rule on those back to back on Sept. 16.” Malone did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Burum, the CNB spokeswoman, said whatever decisions come are expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court. “Timing for breaking ground depends on pending litigation being dismissed,” she said. “That said, the legal team is confident and continues to work hard to resolve matters as quickly as possible.”

Garrett, the CEO, predicted the courts would “see through attempts to delay and confuse matters.” Meanwhile, work and plans progress in Russellville. 

“There’s this perception that everything’s just at a standstill until every last legal challenge is dealt with, and that’s  not been the case,” Garrett said. “Once the cases are resolved, we can write a $38 million check.”

He was referring to a $38.8 million chunk of an economic development deal with the county that will split money among towns, fire districts and local agencies. Yearly donations of $2 million, adjusted for inflation, will follow.

Tax payments to the county are expected to start at $4.3 million a year, and with the creation of nearly 1,750 jobs, the project is projected to have $3.5 billion in economic impact over 10 years.

Hans Stiritz, a leader of Fair Play for Arkansas, said in a statement that Amendment 100 established “a process ripe for corruption” that demands further investigation. “Unfortunately Pope County voters still have not been given a means to determine for themselves whether a casino should be allowed in their own community,” he said.

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