Arkansas Casino License for Pope County Spurs Tribal Fight

Home » Arkansas Casino License for Pope County Spurs Tribal Fight

Posted on: March 16, 2022, 08:42h. 

Last updated on: March 16, 2022, 08:43h.

The lone Arkansas casino license earmarked for Pope County has caused a political clash between rival Native American tribes.

Arkansas casino Pope County Cherokee Choctaw
A Fair Play for Arkansas petition signing table at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in October of 2021. The political action committee is working to eliminate Pope County from becoming a future commercial casino host. (Image: Fair Play for Arkansas)

In November, a long and contentious legal dispute in Arkansas was finally resolved with the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) and Legends Hospitality — doing business together as Legends Resort and Casino LLC — being awarded the lone casino license for Pope County. The gaming license’s issuance came more than three years after Arkansas legalized commercial casinos in four counties.

The Pope County gaming concession was held up in courts after controversy ensued during the Arkansas Racing Commission’s deliberations on whether to pick the Legends bid or another proposal presented by a riverboat entity in Mississippi.

The tedious legal drama gave ammunition to critics who argued that state decision-makers shouldn’t be issuing Pope County a casino in the first place.

Issue 4 — Arkansas’ 2018 statewide referendum to legalize four casinos — passed with 54.1% support. But 11 of the state’s 75 counties rejected the gaming question, and one of them was Pope.

Lobbying Intensifies

Fair Play Arkansas is a political action committee working to rescind the Pope County gaming license. The lobbying group is funded by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The Choctaws, according to recent finance disclosures with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, dumped $525,000 into the PAC’s war chest last month through four cash contributions. The committee is using the money to canvas voters in an effort to put a local referendum before Pope County voters during this November’s election asking them to annul the county’s gaming permit.

In 2018, out-of-state casino developers wrote Pope County into a statewide ballot initiative to legalize casino gambling in just four counties in Arkansas — without any input from Pope County citizens,” Fair Play for Arkansas explains of its 2022 referendum mission. “It turns out that Pope County voters don’t want a casino. We rejected [Issue 4] by a 3-2 margin, the highest ‘NO’ vote of any county in the state.”

The 2018 statewide election allowed Arkansas’ two racinos — Southland and Oaklawn — to transition into full-fledged casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting. It also created two new from-the-ground-up casino opportunities in Pope and Jefferson counties.

Jefferson County partnered with the Quapaw Nation, also of Oklahoma, for its casino. The Saracen Casino Resort is already up and running with 2,100 slots, 30 table games, a poker room, and a sportsbook.

The 2018 referendum undertaking was funded by the Quapaw and Cherokee nations.

To defend its Pope opportunity, the lobbying arm of CNB has given $1.1 million to the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, which was formed to defeat Fair Play. Those funds will be primarily used to try and encourage voters to reject supporting the Pope anti-gaming referendum.

Heavy Opposition

Pope County soundly rejected the 2018 gaming referendum, as nearly 60.1% of local voters answered “no” to Issue 4. However, less than 18,000 votes were cast in Pope County on the referendum question. Pope County’s total population is approximately 65,500 people.

Fair Play for Arkansas argues that a local referendum would give more county residents a chance to weigh in. And with the benefit of hindsight regarding the past three years, the committee hopes the rejection of gaming is even louder.

“No statewide mandate should affect an individual community that has clearly and repeatedly shown at the ballot box that it doesn’t want to participate in the exploitation inherent in the gambling industry,” the committee said.

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