Cherokee Nation Businesses submits Arkansas casino proposal with local endorsement

BY D. SEAN ROWLEY
Senior Reporter
09/02/2019 08:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A plan for a resort and casino by Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends – a global planning, sales and hospitality company – has received authorization by leaders in Pope County, Arkansas. Shown is an artist’s rendering of the proposed $225 million facility. COURTESY
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – After facing general opposition to gaming from residents and officials of Russellville and Pope County, Cherokee Nation Businesses reportedly submitted an application for a casino license in the county on Aug. 22, three days after the Arkansas Racing Commission began a new 90-day bidding period.

A Pulaski County circuit judge decided, also on Aug. 22, that a lawsuit filed by a competing casino interest against the racing commission should be heard in Pope County.

The CNB application also has the support of the Pope County Quorum Court, signed Aug. 13 after a special meeting was called.

“Since submitting our initial application to the Arkansas State Racing Commission in May, we have remained fully committed to the people of Pope County and to taking our proposed development to the next level,” then-CNB CEO Shawn Slaton said on Aug. 12. “Today, with much excitement, we are pleased to unveil our plans. We’ve embraced the community’s feedback and are confident this resort destination brings something for everyone.”

The initial CNB application, and those of four other casino interests, to operate in Pope County were dismissed by the ARC because none had the required endorsements of local officials – required by the Arkansas State Constitution after voters approved Amendment 100.

Any casino in Pope County would be sited on about 135 acres near Russellville. The space is north of Interstate 40 along Nob Hill Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail. The CNB proposal, created with the sports, stadium and entertainment company Legends, calls for a $225 million venue with 50,000 square feet of gaming space, a sports book within a sport-themed tavern, a 200-room luxury hotel with a fitness center, pool and spa, 15,000 square feet of conference space, restaurants, a 100-space RV park, an outdoor music venue and a water park. The proposal states that construction would take approximately 18 months, and CNB estimates that about 1,000 jobs would be created.

Before the Aug. 13 special meeting, the Choctaw Nation and Tri-Peaks/Hard Rock Cafe claimed they would not submit new casino proposals, arguing that the process to decide on bids had not been sufficiently transparent or equitable. Hard Rock Arkansas actually posted to its Facebook page on Aug. 10 that it already knew its proposal would not be selected, and that “another applicant will be granted a letter of support on August 13.”

The lawsuit against the ARC, filed by Gulfside Casino Partnership, includes endorsement letters from Jim Ed Gibson, a former quorum court judge, and former Russellville Mayor Randy Horton, written just before their terms expired.

“The whole town of Russellville erupted and accused them of going around the process,” Slaton told the Tribal Council in January. “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.”

A subsequent appeal by Gulfside was also thrown out by the ARC.

Amendment 100 does not specify when endorsements must be obtained, but a recently passed ARC regulation requires letters of support to come only from local officials in office at the time of submission of an application.

Gulfside’s suit claims the new ARC rule is unconstitutional.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has ordered the case be moved to Pope County.

“It is patently clear from the Verified Complaint that the citizens, residents, and taxpayers of Pope County have a substantial interest in this matter being conducted in Pope County,” Fox wrote in his decision.

The fifth casino interest has submitted a proposal for the “River Ridge Casino Resort.” It is led by the family of Robert and Ruth Kehl of Iowa.
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