Posted on: December 8, 2023, 01:48h.
Last updated on: December 8, 2023, 01:48h.
The Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) gained critical support this week for its $300 million Arkansas casino project called Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville.
Pope County was one of two counties, with Jefferson the other, that Arkansans through a 2018 ballot referendum earmarked for new commercial land-based casinos. The gaming authorization additionally allowed racinos in Crittenden and Garland, respectively Southland and Oaklawn, to become full-scale casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting.
For the from-the-ground-up gaming developments, the 2018 referendum said only bids accompanied by a letter of support from the county’s sitting judge or quorum court should be considered by the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC). That stipulation complicated ARC’s review of the Pope County casino opportunity.
CNB is the commercial economic arm of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. In addition to its gaming and hospitality division, CNB has subsidiaries invested in federal government contracting work, infrastructure projects, and real estate development.
The Cherokees submitted its bid for Legends Resort & Casino with a letter of support from Pope County Judge Ben Cross. A competing $254 million bid called River Valley Casino Resort, also in Russellville, came from Gulfside Casino Partnership.
The Mississippi riverboat gaming operator presented ARC its casino project with a letter of support from former Pope County Judge Ed Gibson, who lent his Gulfside backing just days before leaving the bench in December 2018.
Following a scandal in 2020 that concluded an Arkansas racing commissioner had a bias in his grading of the two Pope County casino pitches, ARC issued Gulfside the casino concession after consulting with then-Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office. That’s when the Cherokees appealed the decision on allegations that Gulfside’s bid shouldn’t have even been considered because the project lacked the support of a sitting Pope County judge or the county quorum court.
The litigation went to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which determined that ARC indeed erred in recognizing Gulfside as a qualifying bid because of the lack of county judicial support. The racing commissioners then deemed the Cherokee plan the winner, prompting further litigation.
Gulfside attorneys said the Cherokee pitch was also invalid because the 2018 referendum mandated that the county licenses be issued to single entities — not partnerships like the one the Cherokees formed in conjunction with Legends Resort & Casino, LLC. Gulfside attorneys also cited the referendum language stating that only companies that can demonstrate a gaming experience should be considered by ARC.
The Arkansas Supreme Court in October sided with Gulfside in that case, with the justices determining that ARC wrongly qualified the CNB plan because it included two entities and also on grounds that Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, lacks relevant experience. Legends Resort & Casino, LLC, is fully owned by CNB.
Pope County officials want to experience the same economic benefits realized in the three other Arkansas counties that have already opened casinos. This week, the Pope County Quorum Court seemingly provided a pathway for that to happen by narrowly picking one of the two bids.
The Pope County Quorum Court voted 7-6 in favoring the CNB casino. With Cross maintaining his support, the Gulfside pitch seemingly has no avenue to qualify its casino bid for ARC consideration.
ARC is expected to reopen its Pope County casino bidding period soon.
We have our application ready,” said Chuck Garrett, the chief executive officer of CNB. “We have 350 acres of land purchased here in Pope County. We have gone through the planning commission. We have all the pieces in place.”
To remedy the legal concerns about CNB bidding as a joint entity, the Cherokees are likely to bid this time solely as CNB or Legends Resort & Casino, LLC.