Final Arkansas Casino License Issued to Cherokee Nation, Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones Firm

Posted on: November 15, 2021, 10:51h. 

Last updated on: November 15, 2021, 05:16h.

More than three years after Arkansas legalized commercial gambling in four counties, the final license has at long last been issued.

Arkansas casino Pope Legends Cherokee Nation
Seen here is a rendering of Legends Resort and Casino, the property that has been issued the Pope County casino license in Arkansas. The gaming permit issuance comes three years after the state legalized commercial gambling. (Image: Legends Resort and Casino)

Following years of legal contentions, the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) last Friday issued the gaming permit allocated for Pope County to the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) and Legends Hospitality.

CNB is the gaming unit of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the largest Native American tribe by population in the United States. CNB and Legends partnered in 2018 to create a new entity in Arkansas called Legends Resort and Casino LLC.

Legends manages hospitality operations at professional sports stadiums across the country. The business was founded in 2008 by the late George Steinbrenner, whose family still owns the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys billionaire owner Jerry Jones.

CNB/Legends plans to spend $225 million building Legends Resort and Casino. That’s an entertainment complex in Russellville that is set to feature a 200-room hotel and casino, offering 1,100 slot machines, 32 table games, and a sportsbook.

Resolution at Long Last

It’s been a long, difficult road for Legends Resort and Casino to get here. And the legal debate essentially boiled down to the applied meaning of the word “the.”

The 2018 ballot referendum asked Arkansas voters if they supported legalizing commercial gambling in the counties of Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope. The constitutional question, which passed statewide with 54.1 percent support, allowed the two pari-mutuel racinos in Crittenden and Garland to transition into full-scale casinos, with slots, table games, and sports betting.

Jefferson and Pope were granted new from-the-ground-up casinos. For interested bidders to qualify, the 2018 measure mandated that any application came with a letter of support “from the county judge.”

Gulfside Casino Partnership, a group based in Mississippi controlled by riverboat pioneers Terry Green and Rich Carter, presented Pope County with a $254 million casino bid just weeks after the successful 2018 ballot referendum. The Gulfside pitch came with then-Pope County Judge Ed Gibson’s support.

But ARC, tasked with reviewing new casino proposals and issuing the Jefferson and Pope gaming permits, opened up the bidding in 2019. Gibson’s term had ended by that time, and when CNB/Legends presented their blueprint, it came with current Pope County Judge Ben Cross’ support.

After much litigation, the matter reached the Arkansas Supreme Court. The high court ruled earlier this month that “the” before “county judge” refers to the current sitting judge, not a former county judge, as was the case with the Gulfside plan with former Judge Gibson’s endorsement.

Industry Set

The Cherokee Nation and Quapaw Nation — both of Oklahoma — predominantly funded the campaign to legalize commercial gambling in Arkansas. Jefferson officials had long been partnered with the Quapaw’s Downstream Development Authority. Downstream began operations at its newly built Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff in September 2019.

Once built and opened, Legends will bring the newly emerged Arkansas commercial casino industry to maturation. Legends did not immediately present a timeline for when it hopes to open its casino.