Group forms to oppose effort to block Pope County casino license

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,259 views 

Investing in Arkansas has formed to oppose a possible constitutional amendment to repeal a controversial Pope County casino license. The latest move is part of ongoing legal actions by the Choctaw Nation and the Cherokee Nation for the lucrative gaming license.

Jennifer McGill of Russellville is the chair of Investing in Arkansas, and Cale Turner of Little Rock is the committee’s treasurer. Investing in Arkansas is financially backed by Cherokee Nation Entertainment.

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin on March 20 approved a potential constitutional amendment that would allow Arkansas voters to repeal the Pope County casino license. With Griffin’s approval, supporters of the measure, Local Voters in Charge, could begin to collect the more than 90,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

In addition to removing the casino license provision in Pope County, the planned amendment would require the quorum court of each county where a casino is to be located to call a special election to submit the question of whether to approve of a possible casino in the county. It would also require a majority of those in the county who vote at the election where a future casino is proposed to be located “to approve of the casino at the special election before the Arkansas Racing Commission, or other governing body, may accept any applications for a casino license in that county.”

Amendment 100 was approved in 2018 by Arkansas voters. It established The Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment, which requires the Racing Commission to issue licenses to Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Southland Racing Corporation in West Memphis, and to entities in Pope County and Jefferson County. 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 Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Jan. 11 it would not rehear a lower court decision that blocked granting of a casino license in Pope County to Cherokee Nation Businesses. The rehearing denial returned the license process back to the Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC).

In it’s Tuesday (May 14) announcement, Investing in Arkansas said the constitutional amendment effort seeks to prevent thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue. The group claims that previous efforts to block the casino has cost state and local governments around $100 million in tax revenue since 2019.

“Don’t be fooled by this out-of-state ploy to repeal the casino measure,” Natalie Ghidotti, vice chair of Investing in Arkansas, said in a statement. “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.”

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

Local Voters in Charge provided the following statement to Talk Business & Politics about the Invest in Arkansas group.

“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?”