Groups forming on both sides of Pope County casino issue

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,484 views 

A committee formed to oppose efforts to remove the Pope County casino from the Arkansas Constitution is starting with $1.1 million cash on hand provided by Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses, the group that will build the casino.

The Arkansas Tourism Alliance filed paperwork with the Arkansas Ethics Commission saying it had raised $1.1 million in February while making no expenditures. The Alliance, led by attorneys Dustin McDaniel and David Couch, said in a press release March 8 that the group was being formed to oppose Fair Play for Arkansas. That group is collecting signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove Pope County from a list of four counties in Arkansas that became eligible for casino licenses as a result of Amendment 100 passed by voters in 2018.

McDaniel, a former Arkansas Attorney General, and Couch helped draft Amendment 100 establishing the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment. It passed with 54% of the vote. McDaniel is a former Arkansas attorney general. Couch has been instrumental in several ballot efforts in Arkansas.

Casinos in three counties are operational: Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs; Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis; and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff. The fourth in Pope County has been slowed by a legal dispute over who would operate the casino. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

On Nov. 12, the Arkansas Racing Commission voted to accept the application by Cherokee Nation Businesses/Legends Resort & Casino for the license in Pope County, allowing the process to move forward. The move came after the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that a competitor, Gulfside Casino Partnership, was not qualified because it did not have an official letter from an elected official. It had obtained a letter from the previous county judge whose term ended before the application period began.

The Arkansas Tourism Alliance’s website says the Legends Resort & Casino initially will create more than 1,750 jobs in Pope County through direct and indirect employment, with estimated employee income during the first operating year of $43.3 million. The press release says that Fair Play for Arkansas is being funded by an out-of-state casino operator – which would be Choctaw Nation – that unsuccessfully sought the Pope County license.

According to Fair Play for Arkansas’ campaign filing report dated Feb. 14, Choctaw Nation had donated $125,000 to that effort in January. Fair Play for Arkansas had raised $132,300 overall. Most of the rest came from realtor Cliff Goodin, a Russellville real estate agent who had donated $5,000 on June 11, 2021. Fair Play for Arkansas had spent $128,176.22, according to its latest report. Of that, $125,000 had been spent with the Friday Eldridge and Clark law firm for legal services.

Fair Play for Arkansas announced the beginning of its signature campaign Feb. 14. In a press release on its website, the group said it had hired canvassing support staff and was confident it would gather signatures by the deadline July 8. The press release said that more than 60% of Pope County voters opposed Amendment 100 in 2018. Fair Play supporters include state Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville; state Rep. Joe Cloud, R-Russellville; Russellville Mayor Richard Harris, and others.