Posted on: August 29, 2022, 03:46h. 

Last updated on: August 29, 2022, 04:50h.

The Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) has been trying to build a casino in Arkansas for nearly a half-decade. As the Oklahoma-headquartered tribe nears receiving full authorization from the state for its Pope County casino, the tribe’s economic arm says remaining legal challenges amount to nothing more than “Hail Marys.”

Cherokee Nation casino Arkansas Pope County Legends Resort
Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garrett speaks before the Russellville Rotary Club in Arkansas in February 2022. Garrett believes the Cherokee tribe will soon receive full approval from Arkansas to build Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville. (Image: Facebook)

CNB CEO Chuck Garrett appeared before the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council last week to provide an update on the conglomerate’s business operations. Garrett said Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston’s decision earlier this month to reject a statewide referendum was the last straw. That action sought to eliminate Pope County as a casino host, which was a rival tribe’s goal to keep the Cherokees out of Arkansas.

Arkansas voters in 2018 backed a gaming referendum that authorized a single casino resort in four counties: Pope, Jefferson, Crittenden, and Garland. The Cherokees largely funded the ballot campaign.

The vote outcome allowed former racinos in Crittenden and Garland to transition into full-scale casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting. Two new from-the-ground-up commercial casino opportunities were set aside for Pope and Jefferson.

Jefferson partnered with the Quapaw Nation, also of Oklahoma. Local officials in Pope had initially agreed to hand off its gaming opportunity to the Cherokees. But legal chaos ensued that greatly stalled the CNB plan to build a $225 million destination called Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville.

Marathon, Not a Race

Garrett told the Cherokee tribal council that the CNB’s mission to open a casino in Arkansas has been “an endurance test.”

We have been in the trenches with hand-to-hand combat for four years. It’s really been quite a test of tenacity,” Garrett explained.

A myriad of issues tangled up the CNB plan. First, the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC), which was originally tasked with issuing the four casino licenses, found one of its members to have had a bias in reviewing two proposals for the Pope County license.

In assessing the CNB pitch and a separate bid from Mississippi-based gaming enterprise Gulfside Casino Partnership, ARC Commissioner Butch Rice scored the Gulfside plan a perfect 100/100. That’s while grading the CNB pitch just 29/100. Rice’s drastic score differential single-handedly tipped the overall ARC score in Gulfside’s favor.

After months of legal deliberation, officials from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office assisted ARC in determining that the Cherokees were the rightful winners of the competitive bidding for the Pope casino concession.

The legal controversy didn’t end there.

Arkansas’ gaming law required that casino bids only qualified for submission with the endorsement of “the county’s judge.” Pope County’s 2018 judge, Ed Gibson, lent a letter of support to the Gulfside plan. But current Pope County Judge Ben Cross, who succeeded Gibson and took office as the county’s top government official in 2019, backs the CNB scheme.

The Arkansas Supreme Court eventually agreed to take up the matter, and ruled last November in the Cherokee’s favor. The state’s highest court determined that “the” before “county judge” refers to the current sitting judge, and not a former county judge.

Nearing Construction

Arkansas’ two racinos have already undergone renovations to transition into full-scale casinos. Along with Southland Casino and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, Jefferson’s new casino — Saracen Casino Resort — is up and running.

Garrett hopes to conclude two remaining legal challenges to Legends and soon begin construction. He isn’t overly concerned that the lawsuits, which have to deal with the Cherokee’s lack of experience running a commercial casino despite the tribe having decades of experience running its tribal resorts, have much merit.

“Without getting into too much of the detail in our strategies behind them, let me just say they are Hail Marys. Last I checked, we have 10 casinos and have been doing pretty well over the last 20-some years. I think the court will see through that and we’ll get the clearance in the next handful of months to move forward,” he concluded.