Casino CEOs hope to persuade Pope County on benefits of resorts

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,575 views 

Two casino resort CEOs believe their projects in Pope County can be of massive benefit locally and to the whole state.

Bill Warner, CEO of Warner Gaming, and Dan Kehl, CEO of Elite Casino Resorts, appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics. The two men lead separate operations in Iowa, which they believe offer similarities to their proposals for bids in or near Russellville, which were received last Thursday.

“Our expertise is local, regional gaming and when you look at regional gaming and creating a tourist destination and seeing what we did in Sioux City, Iowa I felt like that would apply very closely to what happens in Pope County,” said Warner, whose TriPeaks Entertainment Group proposal, would include a casino, 300-room hotel, conference center, and Hard Rock Cafe for indoor and outdoor music. He’s also sweetened the deal with a late announcement that will include a Bo Jackson sports complex that will attract baseball and softball tournaments and other indoor and outdoor sporting events.

Warner says the Hard Rock brand and its music appeal is a big plus.

“It’s definitely music is a destination,” he said. “We have experienced it in Iowa and Las Vegas and other Hard Rocks have experienced the same thing. Music will draw people to the property and it’ll draw people to Pope County.”

Kehl agrees that his group’s rural experience in Iowa will be an asset for their Pope County proposal, River Ridge, which includes a $216 million casino, pool and entertainment complex, 300-room hotel, convention center and outdoor amphitheater.

“We like operating in a smaller community and think we could make a positive impact,” Kehl said. “We’re a family run business, been involved as a family business for the last 50 years in the food and hospitality industry. And being involved in the community is something that we like to be a part of and we like to be impactful. We think we can make a nice positive impact.”

Kehl’s company offers an investment opportunity for Arkansans, up to 20% of the shares of the casino resort will eventually be available for purchase. Elite Casino Resorts also creates a fund that gives back 4.5-5% of net earnings to a community fund for nonprofits and local projects.

“In Lyon County [Iowa] for example, a very small county of about 20,000 people, what they do is they take 25% of that revenue and they give it to every community within the county based on the population plus a share for the county then they take anther 25% and they disperse it through the three community school districts… then the final 50%, they take their board and they do a competitive grant process where anybody can apply for grants. Typically, they ask for a matching grant type of thing, but for the most part there’s not a single fire department that hasn’t gotten a new fire truck or a new community pool or just about any charitable organization, you know, the needs are so great these days that this is a great funding source for them.”

In November 2018, while state voters passed the casino amendment by a 54-46% margin, it failed in Pope County by a 60-40% margin. Pope County voters also passed a local ordinance by a nearly 70% margin that requires an election to allow a casino to be built in the area. The casino amendment passed in the surrounding counties around Pope County ranging from 51% approval to 56% approval.

Despite five casino proposals received for Pope County, resistance remains.

Kehl and Warner acknowledge that there will be public relations work and community education needed to reverse local public opinion. Warner says an economic development study commissioned for the project shows that an estimated 11% of revenues would come from Pope County, while 89% would come from outside of the county.

“I think we need to do our best to just help people understand what we would bring,” Warner said. “I think when that vote happened my guess is there was an element of uncertainty as to what a casino would be. I think I could talk for a half hour about the property without even talking about the casino. And I think that this property would bring a lot of economic development to Pope County.”

“Our business model is helpful. The best way for gaming to create economic development is to spread the wealth throughout the whole community. I think it’s a matter of helping people understand the positive impact it can have. It takes time,” Kehl added.

The three other casino proposals filed in Pope County include Gulfside Casino Partnership and separate bids from the Oklahoma-based Cherokee and Choctaw Nations. The Quapaw Nation filed for a casino application in Jefferson County.

Only Gulfside’s proposal has the signatures of support from locally elected officials in Pope County, a requirement of the process. Those signatures were submitted before the Russellville mayor and Pope County Judge left office at the end of 2018 and are subject to potential legal scrutiny.

The Arkansas Racing and Gaming Commission will meet later this month for first consideration of all six casino proposals.

You can watch the full interviews with both Kehl and Warner below.