Cherokee Nation Businesses partners with Legends for Arkansas casino venture

BY D. SEAN ROWLEY
Senior Reporter
06/13/2019 09:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Shown is a poker table at the Cherokee Casino West Siloam Springs in Delaware County near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. Cherokee Nation Businesses officials on June 11 announced a partnership with Legends, a management consulting firm, to try and establish a casino in Pope County, Arkansas. COURTESY
CATOOSA – As part of the Cherokee Nation Businesses’ efforts to expand into Arkansas, CNB officials announced on June 11 a partnership with Legends to propose a casino and entertainment venue in Pope County.

Legends was jointly established in 2008 by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. It is a management consulting firm that helps clients direct the planning and branding of projects.

“Legends will manage the process for the design and development of the complex, conceive the culinary experience and help CNB to monetize the guest experience for non-gaming attractions,” a CNB release states.

Any casino in Pope County would be sited on about 135 acres in Russellville. The space is near Interstate 40 along Nob Hill Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail. The CNB-Legends proposal calls for an initial design phase, followed by the incorporation of amenities that would include family friendly options for entertainment, with a final phase adding concepts for dining, retail and lodging.

“Entering into this partnership with the globally recognized team at Legends is a game-changer,” CNB CEO Shawn Slaton said. “They bring a wealth of experience having worked with premier venues across professional sports, live events and collegiate partners, including the University of Arkansas, AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Ultimate Fighting Championship and Live Nation amphitheaters. We are committed to earning the letters of support from local elected officials and look forward to unveiling our plans to the community in the near future.”

On May 30, Slaton addressed the Tribal Council’s Executive & Finance Committee, saying that CNB had filed for an Arkansas gaming license in Pope County and analysis indicated such a venue in Russellville would be profitable without impacting the tribe’s Roland casino.

Slaton also said, “when (the Nation) goes outside the 14 counties, we enter the commercial gaming market.” He said the Choctaw Nation, Gulfside Casino Partnership LLC of Mississippi and Warner Gaming of Las Vegas were among those competing with CNB for rights to a facility in Pope County. Slaton did not give a construction cost estimate for a Cherokee casino in Russellville, but said Gulfside and Warner proposals each eclipsed $200 million.

“The applications, ours as well as theirs, will likely be ruled incomplete because the way the constitutional ballot question was set up, you had to have a letter of support from county officials,” Slaton said. “A quorum court judge or quorum court would issue a letter on behalf of the operator to the Arkansas Racing Commission.”

Whether a letter will be issued by Pope County remains cloudy, but Slaton said legal counsel advised CNB to file.

Scott Hardin of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, replying on April 23 to a query by KFSM/KXNW Channel 5, wrote that the filing period was May 1-31.

The “Commission must decide whether to review or reject it based on the lack of the (approval) letter,” and no letter of support had been received from Pope County, Hardin wrote.

In Arkansas, the casino issue is not settled and awaits action by the state Supreme Court. On Nov. 6, Pope County residents voted to require voter approval of any county judge’s letter of support for a casino, but those backing Amendment 100 – approved the same day by voters statewide – say it doesn’t require any additional local balloting.

On June 11, the Pope County judge and quorum court discussed the measure passed by residents – Ordinance 2018-O-42.

Residents suggested the intent is to permit county residents to decide which of the proposed casino operators is best, and that an election be held only if the court, judge or mayor identify such an entity.

However, quorum court Judge Ben Cross and other judges said they interpret the ordinance to apply to any operator, meaning Pope County residents who oppose a casino conceivably would need to reject five approval letters in five separate elections to eliminate each entity interested in moving into Russellville.

Cross said he believes Ordinance 2018-O-42 is inapplicable due to the primacy of state laws over local. He said Amendment 100 includes the mechanism – the letter of support – by which Pope County decides if anyone builds a casino.

“There are 3 million people in the state of Arkansas, and one person decides whether a casino comes here, and you’re looking at him,” Cross said.

Cross said he recognizes the gravity of his responsibility, and maintains contact with the interested parties. He suggested, as he has in previous statements, that he is disinclined to issue a support letter until he gets a different impression from county voters.

“We are in full acknowledgement that the state of Arkansas passed Amendment 100,” Cross said. “We are in full acknowledgement of the parameters of what Amendment 100 calls for. But the quorum court and myself have made our position abundantly clear on this: that we’re going to honor the will of the people. The will of the people in Pope County voted this measure down by about a ratio of 60-40. And in doing that, they sent a sound message to us that they didn’t want me to write that letter of support. They didn’t want the quorum court to do a resolution.”

Russellville Mayor Richard Harris, speaking to Arkansas media, claimed he is also unmoved by conversations with gaming interests.
“I’ve taken calls from Mississippi, Vegas and also Oklahoma,” Harris said. “They’ve come to our community and made presentations, but it hasn’t really changed my mind.”

In January, Slaton told the Tribal Council that Gulfside Casino Partnership had received a support letter from Jim Ed Gibson, the former quorum court judge, and former Russellville Mayor Randy Horton, just before their terms expired.

“The whole town of Russellville erupted and accused them of going around the process,” Slaton said. “The outgoing judge, the outgoing mayor really took it on the chin from the community. So did the casino operator that basically tried to backdoor the process.”

Pope County casino opponents sued and the letters were rescinded.

Pope was one of only four counties considered for gaming in the statewide vote. Crittenden and Garland counties are planning table gaming expansions at the Southland Racing and Oaklawn horse tracks. Pope and Jefferson counties were approved for new gaming facilities.
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