Arkansas: Pope County officials vote to exclusively back Cherokee Nation for casino venture

Pope County officials have taken a decisive step in the ongoing debate over casino vendors for the construction of a casino and resort in Russellville by voting seven to six in favor of exclusively supporting Cherokee Nation Entertainment as the preferred candidate for a casino partnership.

The vote, held on Thursday, marks a pivotal moment in a long-standing, contentious issue within the community. Pope County Judge Ben Cross described the decision as a relief in a matter that has deeply divided the locality.

Chuck Garrett, the chief financial officer of Cherokee Nation, expressed gratitude for the vote of confidence from the court, considering it a validation of their efforts. “Very gratified by their confidence in us and I think we’ve earned that over the last five years, we’ve been here day in and day out,” Garrett remarked.

The recent vote follows the reopening of the casino application process, prompted by a ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court which deemed the initial license award to the Cherokee Nation improper.

Judge Cross, during a quorum court meeting in November, expressed a desire to avoid a new application process similar to the one initiated in 2019. He had hoped to limit solicitation and avoid a flood of casino vendors by tabling a resolution in October. However, the resolution was postponed until December in another seven to six vote.

Cross further emphasized that the prolonged debate on casino vendors has incurred significant financial losses for the county. He recently extended formal support to Cherokee Nation Businesses through a letter, urging the Arkansas Racing Commission to grant them the casino license.

Despite the resolution passing in November’s session, Garrett suggested that their journey is not yet over, emphasizing the need for the Arkansas Racing Commission to reopen the application process.

“We have our application ready to go,” he said. “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.”

While Cross believed that the resolution would enable a swift response from the Racing Commission, there’s uncertainty about the timeline for a new application period. An official from the Arkansas Racing Commission mentioned that they are yet to determine the time frame for initiating a fresh application window.

The latest resolution passed by Pope County indicates exclusive backing for Cherokee Nation Entertainment. However, it doesn’t include provisions for Quorum Court neutrality, a point highlighted in a previously proposed resolution that was tabled in November. 

This development has also spurred Gulfside Casino Partnership, the other main contender in the contest for the casino license, to plan a move seeking support from the Quorum Court for its application.

The fate of the casino license in Pope County remains uncertain, hinged on the decisions and actions of the Arkansas Racing Commission. Both Cherokee Nation and Gulfside await directions from the Commission, which, in turn, is awaiting further instructions from the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The legal back-and-forth has left the entire casino project in limbo for five years, with the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling and subsequent legal maneuvers influencing the path forward for casino vendors in Pope County.