Court favors Cherokee Nation Businesses’ Arkansas casino effort

BY D. SEAN ROWLEY
Senior Reporter
11/04/2019 04:30 PM
TAHLEQUAH – During the Oct. 31 Executive & Finance Committee meeting, Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garrett updated councilors on CNB’s efforts to bring a resort and casino to Russellville, Arkansas.

Of five interests that sought the siting of a venue in Russellville, only CNB’s application has the support of the Pope County Quorum Court, signed Aug. 13, after a special meeting was called.

“The Quorum Court in Pope County, by a vote of 9-4, rescinded a local ordinance passed last November that required a second vote by the citizens of Pope County to approve the endorsement of any operator,” Garrett said. “That is one more step we don’t have to take.”

Any Pope County casino would be sited on about 135 acres near 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 officials estimate that about 1,000 jobs would be created.

The rescinded ordinance was passed by Pope County voters with about 70 percent approval. On the same election date, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 100 to the state’s constitution, allowing the siting of casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties, and at the state’s horse racing venues in Hot Springs and West Memphis.

The amendment does require local endorsement of casino applicants in Pope and Jefferson counties by their respective quorum courts or local officials.

The Oct. 29 ruling by Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Bill Pearson of Clarksville, Arkansas, which states that the county ordinance rescinded the night before was unconstitutional, will be appealed, said members of the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County. Pearson also dismissed claims that Ben Cross, Pope County judge, violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by meeting in secret before the CNB endorsement.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Oct. 29 that it received an email from Larry Walker, a Russellville attorney acting on behalf of Citizens for a Better Pope County. Walker claimed the email was from Cross to other members of the quorum court and amounted to a poll of the members on whether to repeal the ordinance. Under Arkansas law, it is illegal to poll members of a governing body outside a public meeting to reach a decision or consensus.

The previous week, the quorum court could not manage the two-thirds vote required to suspend rules and permit members to consider a resolution to repeal.

“Do you want to keep addressing it on each agenda?” Cross reportedly wrote in the email. “Do you want to completely disregard the issue and let litigation take its course? Those are about the only two possible alternatives I can see at this point, unless you have some other direction the county should take.”

In another email given to the Democrat-Gazette, Cross reportedly sent members an opinion from Fort Smith attorney Colby Roe, who recommended rescinding the ordinance, partly to spare the county the attendant legal fees.

Two lawsuits by Citizens for a Better Pope County against the county and the Arkansas Racing Commission claimed the Aug. 13 decision by the Pope County Quorum Court endorsing CNB go against the ordinance because no election was held. A suit was also filed by anti-casino group Concerned Citizens of Pope County claiming the quorum court violated the FOIA.

Garrett told councilors that Pope County received a favorable ruling by the Pope County Circuit Court “affirming the constitutionality of Amendment 100, and affirming the county’s decision to endorse (CNB).”

Garrett said he could not give a timetable on opening the casino due to the legal issues winding their way through Arkansas courts, but was confident CNB would eventually have the go-ahead to open a venue – based on conversations with county and state officials.

“The wheels of justice – you know how that is,” he said. “The county judge issued his ruling from the bench. That’s a pretty unusual thing. Usually they take it under advisement. The appellate relief goes to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The party that does not prevail may decide to appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. If they hear it on an expedited basis, it could be 90 days. If not, then it could be nine months. But I think we have the law on our side, the facts on our side, and we will continue to be persistent.”

A hearing is also scheduled for Nov. 25 for a civil suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court filed by Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi against the ARC. Gulfside received endorsements from officials in Pope County during their last days in office. The ARC denied the application because it had adopted a rule and the Arkansas Legislature passed a law requiring any endorsing officials be in office when the ARC receives the license application.

The “window” to file a Pope County casino application closes Nov. 18, but the ARC announced in October that it would wait for the outcomes of lawsuits before considering the applications to site a casino in Pope County.
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