Editor’s note: Story updated with additions and changes throughout, to include a statement from Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Arkansas Wins in 2016, the ballot committee formed to support passage of a constitutional amendment that would authorize casino gaming in three Arkansas counties, says it has struck a deal with Cherokee Nation Entertainment for venues.
If the constitutional amendment qualifies for the November ballot and wins voter approval, the groups said they would work together to build new state of the art casino, hotel and entertainment venue in Washington County. Cherokee Nation Entertainment is the Cherokee Nation’s wholly-owned corporate entity that manages the tribe’s gaming, hospitality, entertainment and retail ventures.
“Our intention from the outset of this campaign has been for the casinos authorized by this amendment to be operated by well-established, credible firms in the gaming industry. In addition to creating new opportunities for jobs, tourism and economic development, Cherokee Nation Entertainment brings a wealth of experience and a proven track record in the gaming industry to this effort. We believe voters will recognize the value that passage of this amendment will bring to Northwest Arkansas and the entire state,” said Robert Coon, spokesperson for Arkansas Wins in 2016.
Coon said no location has been determined, and no estimate has been made on what type of facility will be constructed. Cherokee Nation Entertainment completed in late 2015 an $80 million expansion of its Roland, Okla. – across the border from Fort Smith. The 170,000-square-foot casino and hotel has 850 electronic games, table games and a private High Limit poker room. Two dining options are also available for guests, along with an entertainment venue offering a cocktail bar and live music.
Cherokee Nation Entertainment owns and operates nine casino properties in the state of Oklahoma, consisting of its flagship property, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa as well as eight Cherokee Casinos in Roland, Sallisaw, West Siloam Springs, Tahlequah, Fort Gibson, Claremore, South Coffeyville and Ramona. A tenth is under construction near Grove, Oklahoma on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
“It’s been an interest of ours for many years to leverage our nearly thirty years’ experience in gaming, hospitality and entertainment into markets outside of Oklahoma,” said Shawn Slaton, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, the parent company of Cherokee Nation Entertainment. “This commercial gaming venture is a natural evolution of our business model that will be good for the state, northwest Arkansas and the Cherokee Nation. We employ thousands of people, and are good community partners, and we look forward to extending that into Arkansas.”
A constitutional amendment that would allow casinos in Washington, Miller and Boone counties was certified June 1 by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, and now backers will begin collecting signatures.
The measure would allow casino gaming as well as wagers on sporting and other events. The casinos would be allowed to operate at all times and sell alcohol at all times. The casinos – one in each county – would be operated by Washington County Gaming, LLC; Miller County Gaming, LLC; and, in Boone County, Arkansas Gaming and Resorts, LLC, or those entities’ successors or assignees.
The amendment’s ballot question committee, Arkansas Wins in 2016, is composed of five members, according to the group’s filing with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. They are Barry Seller of Sherwood, chairman; Diane Dalton of Stuttgart, treasurer; Don Nicholas of Walnut Ridge, director; Jim Thompson of Blue Eye, Mo., director; and Bob Womack of Branson, director. Little Rock attorney Cal McCastlain filed the amendment with the attorney general’s office.
Dalton, Womack and Thompson were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify a casino initiative for the ballot in 2012. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, then a private citizen, argued Secretary of State Mark Martin’s case that the measure should not qualify for the ballot. Nicholas was involved in unsuccessful casino attempts in 1998 and 2000, according to the book, “How the South Joined the Gambling Nation” by Michael Nelson and John Lyman Mason.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, said his group would oppose the expansion of casinos, as it has in the past. He said Arkansas Wins in 2016 does appear to be making enough progress in gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot. If that happens, his group will form a ballot question committee, raise money and work with other groups such as the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council. He said the business community could be concerned because casinos don’t lift the local economy. Moreover, the tax benefit is very small relative to the state budget.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also said he will oppose the amendment.
“I continue to oppose initiated efforts to bring casino gambling to Arkansas. The proposed amendment dictates specific locations for casino gambling that prevent the people who live there from having control over what type of community they will have in the future,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
In the past, the state’s current gaming institutions, Oaklawn and Southland, have opposed casino efforts. Asked if the Family Council would work with those entities, Cox said, “We may end up being fellow travelers on the same road even if we’re not in the same car.”
He cited a Brookings Institution study showing that for every dollar collected in taxes for vices like gambling and smoking includes $10 of harm to society.
Cox pointed to an analysis by the Family Council in 2015 of poverty levels in Arkansas counties adjoining Mississippi counties with casinos and found the poverty level was almost identical, with similar demographics. In Tunica County, Miss., 30% of the population lives below the poverty level; in Lee County, it’s 31.5%. In Coahoma County, Miss., 38% live in poverty, while Phillips County has a 33.5% poverty rate. Washington County, Miss., has a 29% poverty rate; Chicot County has a 33% poverty rate.
What about the argument that Arkansans can already drive across the border and gamble in Oklahoma?
“Yes, people may be able to drive over to West Siloam Springs and gamble there, but just because you can harm yourself in Oklahoma doesn’t mean that we ought to create opportunities for people to harm themselves in Arkansas,” he said.