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Pope County Judge’s Letter Backs Cherokee Casino

4 min read

Pope County Judge Ben Cross is doubling down on his support for a casino planned near Russellville by Cherokee Nation Businesses of Catoosa, Oklahoma.

An Arkansas Supreme Court decision last week threw doubt on those plans; the ruling upheld a lower court decision that voided CNB’s gaming license granted by the Arkansas Racing Commission.

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 has bought about $35 million worth of land to develop the casino, a $225 million project with 50,000 SF of gaming space and 200 hotel rooms.

Cross issued a statement Monday saying he had issued an updated, exclusive letter of support for the project.

“Upon learning the conclusions of the split decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding the casino litigation affecting Pope County, I issued an updated exclusive letter of support as required by Amendment 100 to Cherokee Nation Businesses in the name of Cherokee Nation Entertainment, with the technical issues identified by the Court resolved,” Cross stated.

More: Click here to read Cross’ letter.

Amendment 100 of the Arkansas Constitution legalized casino gambling in Hot Springs, West Memphis, Pine Bluff and Pope County.

After four years, Pope County still has no casino, and CNB is competing with other companies for a new gaming license from the Racing Commission.

One of those competitors will be Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, which had held the Pope County casino license before the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled against it in previous litigation. Gulfside, on the winning side of last week’s ruling, has touted plans for a $254 million entertainment destination in Russellville that would include a 500-room hotel and 80,000 SF of gaming space.

In the case that was appealed, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox had ruled that Legends Resort and Casino LLC, the Cherokee Nation entity listed on the license, was not a qualified applicant under the language of Amendment 100.

Cross told Arkansas Business in a telephone interview Monday that he and members of the Pope County Quorum Court open to the idea of a local casino favor the Cherokee project exclusively. “We still have some [justices of the peace] who are adamantly opposed to any casino,” Cross said.

“I’ve talked to all the parties involved,” he said. “The Supreme Court ruling kind of throws it back to the Racing Commission to square one.”

The commission will open a 30-day application period just as it did in 2019, Cross said.

“They’ll have to accept any applicants that apply that have the requisite support found in Amendment 100, which is either a letter from me or a resolution of the Quorum Court. And so, to let the commission know that we want this to move as expeditiously as possible, we went ahead and issued the letter the day the ruling came out,” Cross said, noting he sent the letter on Oct. 26 “so the commission would have it in hand and know that there is a viable applicant waiting in the wings.”

The land CNB bought for the casino is along Interstate 40 outside the city limits of Russellville.

“Obviously, we would appreciate quick action and quick resolution through the Racing Commission,” Cross said. “It is my sincere hope the commission views this as a measure of quick resolve and finalizes what has been an exhausting process to the citizens of Pope County.”

Next Steps

Both Cherokee Nation Businesses and Gulfside Casino Partnership issued statements after Cross announced his letter of support for CNB.

“We are honored to have the express and exclusive support of Pope County Judge Ben Cross,” CNB CEO Chuck Garrett 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 step 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.”

Gulfside said it looks forward to presenting its plans to the commission.

“When given the opportunity, we will prove to members of the quorum court why Gulfside’s superior proposal is a better way to win for Russellville, Pope County and the entire state, just as we did in 2020 in our head-to-head presentation to the Arkansas Racing Commission,” Casey Castleberry, an attorney for Gulfside Casino Partnership, said.

While details have not been determined, the Department of Finance & Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission, said it expects the commission to launch a new application period in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision.

A DF&A spokesman said Monday that based on Amendment 100 and associated rules, casino license applications to the commission must be accompanied by a letter of support from the Pope County judge or a resolution of support from the Pope County Quorum Court (either option qualifies). If an application is not accompanied by letter or resolution, it does not proceed to review.

“Overall, questions will be answered when the Commission meets to consider this issue,” said the spokesman, Scott Hardin. “We do not have a meeting time yet.”

Trent Minner, administrator of DF&A’s regulatory division, said the department will work with the Racing Commission to open a new application window soon.

“We will work with the commission to ensure all legal requirements of Amendment 100 are fulfilled and that the process is carried out in compliance with Arkansas law,” Minner said.

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