Cherokee Nation to Appeal Pope County Casino Ruling to Arkansas Supreme Court

Posted on: January 16, 2023, 09:47h. 

Last updated on: January 17, 2023, 02:38h.

The Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) will appeal a judge’s decision that came last Friday rescinding the company’s gaming license to build and eventually operate a casino in Pope County.

Cherokee Nation Pope County casino Arkansas gaming
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has rescinded a casino license allocated for Pope County from a partnership controlled by the Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends Hospitality. The Cherokee Nation will appeal the ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court. (Image: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) erred in issuing CNB and Legends Resort & Casino a gaming concession. CNB and Legends want to build a $225 million casino resort in Russellville on a 135-acre site north of I-40 on Nob Hill Rd.

Pope County is one of four counties that qualifies to host a commercial casino. The authorization came through a 2018 ballot referendum passed by state voters.

The amendment to the Arkansas Constitution granted the state’s two racetrack racinos — Southland and Oaklawn — permission to become full-scale casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting. The gaming authorization also allowed for two entirely new, from-the-ground-up casinos to be built in Pope and Jefferson counties.

More than four years since voters designated Pope County as a permitted casino jurisdiction, it’s still unclear as to which entity will receive the privilege of developing such a gaming resort. The state’s three other casinos have already opened, including the $350 million Saracen Casino Resort in Jefferson’s Pine Bluff.

Saga Continues

ARC had no prior history of dealing with commercial gaming matters before 2018. Previously, the state agency dealt only with regulating thoroughbred and greyhound racing.

The agency’s gaming inexperience became quickly apparent.

The first controversy in deciding which company would receive the Pope County casino license came in 2020. That’s when Commissioner Butch Rice was deemed to have had a bias in grading the two competing proposals. Along with CNB, a bid from an entity called Gulfside Casino Partnership, a Mississippi-based entity that operates the Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, was fielded for Pope

Arkansas racing commissioners determined that Rice unfairly graded the Cherokee plan a score of just 29/100, while grading the Gulfside plan a perfect 100/100. Rice’s bias singlehandedly tipped the ARC overall score in favor of Gulfside by a total score of 637 points for Gulfside to 572 points for CNB/Legends.

ARC sought legal assistance from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office, which later determined that the CNB plan should have prevailed. ARC subsequently deemed the Cherokees the winners for Pope County and approved the Legends Resort & Casino project.

Issuance Error

Gulfside appealed the state’s decision to move forward with the Cherokees on grounds that Legends Resort & Casino lacks gaming experience. The state mandated that only firms with gaming experience qualify for consideration for the gaming permit.

Gulfside also argued that the state can only issue the license to a single entity, and CNB applied as a partnership with Legends under the entity, “Legends Resort& Casino.” Legends Resort & Casino is fully owned by CNB and its subsidiary Cherokee Nation Entertainment. Fox agreed with the plaintiffs.

CNB has plenty of experience operating tribal casinos in its native Oklahoma. But Legends Hospitality, a “strategic consultant” on the project that has no ownership in the casino development, does not. Legends is a sports stadium and arena hospitality and concessions firm. Legends Hospitality is partly owned by Arkansas native Jerry Jones.

CNB said that while it’s disappointed with Fox’s conclusion, the company is glad to have an answer and will proceed with settling the legal matter in the state’s highest court.

“While the circuit court’s ruling is disappointing, in the interest of forward progress, we are pleased to have a decision,” said Chuck Garrett, CNB CEO. “We remain confident in our legal position and will move quickly to have our appeal heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court.”