Pope County in Arkansas was allocated a single commercial casino license through a gaming ballot referendum passed by state voters in November 2018. Nearly four years later, the recipient of that lone development opportunity remains unclear.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma led the campaign in 2018 to woo over Arkansas voters into supporting a ballot referendum asking if they wished to allow one casino each in the counties of Pope, Jefferson, Crittenden, and Garland.
The approved question gave the Southland and Oaklawn horse racetracks, respectively in Crittenden and Garland, permission to transition into full-scale casinos. The constitutional amendment additionally allowed for a single from-the-ground-up casino in Pope and Jefferson.
The Cherokee Nation, through its commercial business unit Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), had an informal agreement with Pope County officials to be their casino developer in the event of a successful referendum. But after voters signed off on the question, legal chaos ensued for the Pope gaming permit.
While the Cherokees were hopeful that they were nearing the conclusion of the legal tangling, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen this week denied a motion to dismiss the final remaining lawsuit against CNB.
Lawsuit to Proceed
The Cherokee Nation Businesses expressed optimism late last month that their road to being deemed the Pope County casino developer was imminent. The company said the remaining lawsuit was nothing more than a “Hail Mary.”
Pope resident Cliff Goodin brought a lawsuit against CNB on what’s seemingly a technicality. Attorneys representing Goodin argue that the company Pope has partnered with is not qualified to receive a state-issued gaming license because it lacks adequate experience, which is required under the 2018 amendment.
The Cherokees hope to build a $225 million casino called Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville. CNB has partnered with Legends Hospitality, a New York-based hospitality and concessions firm that specializes in sports stadiums and arenas. Legends is co-owned by Dallas Cowboys owner and Arkansas native Jerry Jones.
CNB and Legends jointly sought the Pope casino license under a new entity called Legends Resort & Casino, LLC. Goodin argues that since Legends Resort & Casino, LLC has no track record running a casino, it doesn’t qualify for licensure.
In replying to Legends’ motion to dismiss, Griffen ruled that Goodin’s case has merit and should be allowed to proceed. He cited the ballot language, which states, “The Arkansas Racing Commission shall require all casino applicants for a casino license in Pope County and Jefferson County to demonstrate experience conducting casino gaming.”
Cherokees Lambaste Ruling
Though Legends Resort & Casino, LLC might not have any gaming experience, the Cherokee Nation Businesses sure does. The tribe owns and operates 10 casinos in its home state of Oklahoma.
The Constitution requires that the Arkansas Racing Commission require applicants to ‘demonstrate experience’ in casino gaming. Our application laid out decades of experience, and we participated in a lengthy public interview process in which we were questioned about our experience,” said Dustin McDaniel, legal counsel for CNB.
McDaniel went on to explain that the state racing commission additionally hired an independent expert to evaluate the tribe’s gaming experience, and that individual gave CNB “a superior score.”
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