Cherokee Nation Businesses of Catoosa, Oklahoma, won a political victory Thursday in the years-long back-and-forth battle to build a casino near Russellville.
The Pope County Quorum Court, following the wishes of County Judge Ben Cross, voted 7-6 to support the Cherokee Nation’s bid to build a $300 million Legends Resort and Casino just outside Russellville on land CNB bought for $35 million along Interstate 40.
The vote by the justices of the peace came on the heels of a late October ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court that stripped CNB of its gaming license, one of four that state voters approved when they passed Amendment 100 in November 2018.
It was the second time the high court ruled that the Arkansas Racing Commission had erred in awarding the Pope County license. Casinos have been operational in the other towns named in the amendment — West Memphis, Hot Springs and Pine Bluff — for the past several years.
The 5-2 ruling found that the commission acted beyond its legal authority in granting the license to two entities, CNB and Legends Resort and Casino LLC. CNB plans to build the project with 50,000 SF of gaming space and 200 hotel rooms.
CNB’s main rival for the gambling license, Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, was on the winning side of that ruling. The Racing Commission had originally awarded it the license, but the Supreme Court upheld a challenge to that permit in October 2021.
County Judge Cross has consistently supported the CNB project over Gulfside’s plans for a $254 million entertainment destination that would include a 500-room hotel and 50,000 SF of gaming space.
Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garrett praised the quorum court’s decision and the “unwavering support the community has shown us over the years.” In a statement, he said, “We will continue to follow the lead of the Arkansas Racing Commission and the Arkansas Attorney General’s office as they determine the next steps in fulfilling Amendment 100. Our full commitment remains to build the first-class Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville and bring the jobs and economic growth Pope County and the state deserve.”
Little Rock attorney Casey Castleberry, who represents Gulfside, said in a statement, “As we await guidance and next steps from the Arkansas Racing Commission, the state’s governing body on gaming, as to how and when it will receive and consider applications, we look forward to presenting our proposal to the Pope County Quorum Court and seeking a resolution of support.”
The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission, expects it to launch a new application period. Last month, a spokesman said that casino license applications must be accompanied by a letter of support from Judge Cross or a resolution of support from the Pope County Quorum Court.
“The Racing Commission is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the Cherokee’s Petition for Rehearing,” department spokesman Scott Hardin said in a statement. “The Commission hasn’t discussed a potential time frame for a new application period. While the Commission will be meeting throughout the Oaklawn live racing season (including tomorrow), a Pope County discussion is not an agenda item.”
Cherokee Nation Businesses projects that the resort and casino will bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact to the River Valley.
It already has a local office in downtown Russellville, and CNB says it’s dedicated to being a community partner.
Legends expects to draw more than a million visitors each year and projects a 10-year economic impact of $3.15 billion. It plans to spend $225 million on facilities, including indoor and outdoor music venues, a medical evacuation landing zone and a law enforcement substation.
The project should create more than 1,750 direct and indirect jobs, and CNB expects the casino to pay $4.3 million in taxes to Pope County in its first year of operation.
Legends also expects to buy $300 million in goods from vendors, most of which will be Arkansas based, over the 10-year license period, CNB said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Quorum Court resolution expressed “exclusive” support for the Cherokee Nation’s casino project. The resolution does not contain that word.