Cherokee-Backed Group Counters Proposed Amendment Threatening Pope County Casino License, Sparks Legal Battle in Arkansas Gaming Sector

Home » Cherokee-Backed Group Counters Proposed Amendment Threatening Pope County Casino License, Sparks Legal Battle in Arkansas Gaming Sector

Investing in Arkansas, a Cherokee-backed group, has been established to counter a proposed constitutional amendment that aims to repeal the contentious Pope County casino license. This development adds another layer to the ongoing legal battles initiated by the Choctaw Nation and the Cherokee Nation over the profitable gaming license.

Jennifer McGill from Russellville leads Investing in Arkansas as chair, while Cale Turner from Little Rock serves as the committee’s treasurer. The financial support for this group comes from Cherokee Nation Entertainment.

On March 20, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin approved a proposed constitutional amendment, enabling supporters of the initiative, known as Local Voters in Charge, to start gathering the necessary 90,000 signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.

The proposed amendment seeks not only to eliminate the casino license provision in Pope County but also to mandate that the quorum court in any county where a casino is proposed must call a special election. This election would determine whether the local electorate approves the casino before the Arkansas Racing Commission or another governing body can accept any casino license applications for that county.

In 2018, Arkansas voters passed Amendment 100, which established the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment. This amendment directed the Racing Commission to issue casino licenses to Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Southland Racing Corporation in West Memphis, and entities in Pope County and Jefferson County. Currently, casinos are operational in three counties: Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.

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On January 11, the Arkansas Supreme Court decided not to reconsider a lower court’s ruling that blocked the awarding of a casino license in Pope County to Cherokee Nation Businesses. This decision redirected the licensing process back to the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC).

Thousands of Jobs on the Line

In its announcement on May 14, Investing in Arkansas criticized the proposed constitutional amendment, arguing that it could prevent the creation of thousands of jobs and the generation of millions in tax revenue. The group asserts that efforts to obstruct the casino have already cost state and local governments approximately $100 million in tax revenue since 2019.

“Don’t be fooled by this out-of-state ploy to repeal the casino measure,” said Natalie Ghidotti, vice chair of Investing in Arkansas, in a statement cited by Talk Business & Politics. “This group claims its effort is about local choice, but in reality, their proposal would completely eliminate the casino license in Pope County, going against the will of Arkansas voters. This attempt to repeal the Pope County casino license is being driven by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which controls a competing casino just across the state line near Fort Smith. Their mission is to keep Arkansas tourism and tax dollars flowing across state lines and into their pockets.”

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The initial proposal for the Cherokee Nation casino included plans for a $225 million facility featuring 50,000 square feet of gaming space with 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, a sportsbook within a high-end sports bar, a luxury hotel with 200 rooms, a resort-style pool, spa and fitness center, 15,000 square feet of mixed-use conference and entertainment space for 1,000 people, and an outdoor water park and music venue.

In response to the formation of Investing in Arkansas, Local Voters in Charge provided a statement of their own, emphasizing the importance of local decision-making: “One thing we should all agree on is that casinos should not be forced into communities that don’t want them – our proposal simply protects all Arkansas communities from having that happen to them. Our opponents want to deprive local voters of having the final say on this issue. Some communities might want a casino, and others do not, but we trust local voters to decide what’s best for their communities, and that’s all our amendment does – puts local voters in charge. If our opponents are confident in the benefits of their casinos and local support for them, why do they oppose giving local voters the final say?”

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As the debate over the Pope County casino license continues, both sides remain firmly entrenched in their positions, underscoring the complex and high-stakes nature of this issue for Arkansas’s future.

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