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Arkansas Racing Commission Awards New Casino License

The Arkansas Racing Commission has awarded Cherokee Nation Entertainment a long-awaited license to build a casino in Pope County. This decision follows years of legal disputes and positions the casino as the fourth and final one approved under the state’s 2018 constitutional amendment.
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Branimir Ivanov | Senior News Contributor

Updated: Jul 1, 2024

More Light for Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — In a long-awaited decision, the Arkansas Racing Commission has granted Cherokee Nation Entertainment a license to construct a casino in Pope County, marking the end of a protracted legal saga that has stretched over several years.

On Thursday, the commission's panel reached a unanimous verdict to issue the license, greenlighting the fourth and final casino permitted under the state's 2018 constitutional amendment. This landmark amendment, approved by voters, authorized the establishment of casinos at four designated locations in Arkansas.

Cherokee Nation Entertainment, the gaming and hospitality arm of the Cherokee Nation, plans to develop a 50,000-square-foot casino northeast of Russellville, roughly 60 miles northwest of Little Rock. Their ambitious project also includes a 200-room hotel, a conference center, and an outdoor music venue.

“With the license in hand, we are prepared to finalize the remaining permitting and administrative processes so we can commence construction,” stated Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Entertainment. The company expressed its readiness to advance swiftly now that the legal uncertainties have been resolved.

 

  • License Granted After Legal Battles: The Arkansas Racing Commission awarded Cherokee Nation Entertainment a license to build a casino in Pope County, concluding years of legal disputes and revoking an earlier voided license.
  • Final Casino Under 2018 Amendment: This casino will be the fourth and final one authorized under Arkansas’s 2018 constitutional amendment, featuring a 50,000-square-foot facility with a hotel, conference center, and music venue.
  • Potential Opposition Ahead: The project could face further hurdles from a Choctaw Nation-supported group aiming to repeal the license through a ballot measure in November, requiring over 90,000 signatures by July 5 to qualify.

 

A Rocky Path to Approval

The journey to secure the license has been tumultuous. The application process was reinitiated last year following a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which upheld a previous court's decision to void the initial license awarded to Cherokee Nation Entertainment. This court battle stemmed from disputes over the legitimacy of the initial licensing process and the adherence to statutory requirements.

Cherokee Nation’s revised application was the sole contender before the Racing Commission this time around. Earlier in June, the panel disqualified a competing bid, deeming it incomplete due to its failure to garner the necessary endorsements from the county judge and the quorum court.

Despite this significant step forward, the casino's future is not entirely secure. Opposition remains, particularly from groups backed by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. These groups are advocating for a ballot measure in November that could potentially overturn the Pope County license. To succeed, they must submit at least 90,704 valid signatures from registered Arkansas voters by July 5 to qualify their proposal for the ballot.

The controversy over the Pope County casino highlights the ongoing debates around gambling expansion in the state. Proponents argue that new casinos will drive economic growth, create jobs, and generate substantial tax revenues. Conversely, opponents raise concerns about potential social costs, including increased gambling addiction and local economic impacts.

 

“The Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously awarded the casino license to Cherokee Nation Entertainment, ending several years of legal disputes and making it the fourth and final casino permitted under the 2018 constitutional amendment.”

 

Broader Implications

This development marks a significant milestone in Arkansas's journey toward expanding legalized gambling. With casinos already operating at the three other approved locations, the new Pope County site represents the final piece of the puzzle envisioned by the 2018 amendment.

If the Cherokee Nation Entertainment successfully navigates the remaining legal and administrative hurdles, Pope County could soon witness a transformation into a new entertainment and economic hub. The outcome of the pending petition drive and potential legal challenges will ultimately determine the project's fate.

As the clock ticks down to the petition deadline and the November ballot, all eyes will be on Pope County, where the next chapter in Arkansas’s evolving gambling landscape will unfold.

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