A Las Vegas casino operator and a Choctaw Nation spokesman -- representing two of five contenders for a license to a build a casino in Pope County -- said Saturday that their businesses were told by the county judge that the Quorum Court would support giving the license to another rival, Cherokee Nation Businesses.
The news broke as the Cherokee Nation was anticipated to announce Monday its updated proposal for a casino in the county. And on Tuesday, the Pope County Quorum Court will hold a special meeting to discuss the casino license issue and had asked rivals to pitch their proposals.
Under a constitutional amendment approved in November that allows the state to have four casinos, new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties must have the endorsement of elected officials.
In a letter dated Saturday to Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County, Warner Gaming CEO Bill Warner said his company was told by Cross that the endorsement would go to the Cherokee Nation Businesses of Catoosa, Okla. The letter was obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
John Burris, spokesman for the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Durant, Okla., said in a telephone interview with the Democrat-Gazette that Cross called Friday to say that a resolution would be issued to the Cherokee Nation at Tuesday's special meeting of the Quorum Court.
Messages left for Cross on two cellphone numbers were not returned as of late Saturday. Also, messages left for Amanda Clinton of Cherokee Nation Businesses were not returned.
According to Warner and Burris, Cross asked their companies and the remaining contenders -- Gulfside Casino Partnership of Gulfport, Miss., and Kehl Management of Dubuque, Iowa -- to submit their "final offer" to Cross before Tuesday's meeting.
Burris said his group had previously had a meeting set for Tuesday, but Cross canceled it when he called Friday.
"He told us that there would be an emergency called meeting and there would be a letter of support issued to the Cherokees," he said. "He asked for our best final offer also."
Of the 13 Pope County justices of the peace, only Jamie Jackson responded to requests for comment from the Democrat-Gazette.
Jackson said he was not privy to any information that Cherokee Nation Businesses had been selected, but said that all five of the proposals would be reviewed at the Tuesday meeting and that a decision will be made then on which company would be awarded the endorsement.
"Everything will be confirmed Tuesday night," Jackson said.
The contenders have said their casinos would be multimillion-dollar developments with hotels, restaurants and large gambling areas. Their proposals were submitted to the Arkansas Racing Commission, which rejected them in June because they lacked endorsements of current local officials.
Cherokee Nation Businesses in recent days has alluded in billboards and newspaper advertisements to a "countdown" that will end with an announcement on Monday.
The tribe announced in June that it is partnering with Legends -- a stadium management company founded by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late George Steinbrenner, who owned the New York Yankees -- to "manage the process for the design and development" of the Pope County casino should they be awarded the license.
In Saturday's letter to Cross, Warner said his company would "still welcome the chance to participate in a publicly transparent process and give a presentation to county officials at an open meeting, to allow for public discussion and evaluation of the merits of our proposal."
"Should that opportunity arise we would be prepared to present our best and final proposal," Warner said. Warner Gaming's proposal was for a Hard Rock casino.
Robert McLarty, spokesman for Kehl Management, said the group met Friday with Cross, but was not told that the Cherokee Nation or any other applicant was going to be endorsed.
"We are going forward and we're getting a really good response," McLarty said.
Casey Castleberry, the attorney for Gulfside, issued a statement Saturday evening: "Gulfside timely complied with every requirement of Amendment 100, including submitting the required letter of support from [then-]Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson. We are hopeful the Racing Commission will reverse its denial and award Gulfside the Pope County casino gaming license. If it chooses otherwise, we will seek review of its denial and allow the judicial process to play out."
The casino issue has sparked heated debate in Pope County from the moment Amendment 100 -- which allows casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties and allows Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand their operations into full-fledged casinos -- was first proposed.
The Cherokee Nation contributed $2.2 million to the campaign for Amendment 100. The Quapaw Nation, which is building the resort in Jefferson County, spent $3.7 million.
While the state overwhelmingly passed Amendment 100 at the polls in November, Pope County voters rejected it and also passed an ordinance calling for a special election before county officials can support a casino applicant.
Before they left office in December, two officials in Pope County issued letters of support for Gulfside, the applicant from Mississippi.
The Racing Commission, which will handle licensing of casinos, later ruled that endorsement letters must come from sitting officials at the time of the application submission. Also, Act 371, approved by the Legislature this year, requires that the letters of support come from current officeholders.
The constitutional amendment says only that an endorsement is required; it does not differentiate between current or previous officials or give a specific time frame for producing the endorsement.
The Racing Commission rejected the applications of all five contenders, then decided June 28 to reopen the process if any of them came forward with the letters of support. Gulfside -- the only applicant with letters of support, albeit not from current officials -- appealed and its appeal is to be considered Thursday.
Cross has been adamant from the beginning that he would not issue an endorsement unless he was given the go-ahead by Pope County voters, as required by the ordinance approved in November. Some casino proponents have contended that the ordinance is constitutionally suspect.
In a news release Saturday, Warner said his company's officials were disappointed by the actions of Cross and the county's Quorum Court.
"We have continually asked for a fair, open and transparent process and all of the applicants who have spent a significant amount of time and money deserve this," Warner said. "More importantly, the public deserves this."
Cross previously told the Democrat-Gazette that the issue would likely go before the voters to decide if they wanted a casino in Pope County. At that point, Cross said, the applications would be reviewed by him and the Quorum Court in an "an open vetting process."
"I already vet them on a weekly basis," Cross said in July. "I know who has what to offer. In the interest of transparency to the public, I think it would be better to have open process."
Burris, the Choctaw spokesman, said his company was disappointed that the process was not handled more openly.
"We're still hopeful that the Quorum Court members will take their time and hear qualified proposals for the best applicants," Burris said.
From billboards and free products to food-filled meet-and-greet meetings to sizable donations to local charities, all five of the license contenders have courted the Pope County community hard to gain support.
Support for a casino gained traction when the grass-roots group Pope County Majority was created on Facebook by Kelly Jett in June and quickly collected more than 6,500 members.
Jett and the group's members swamped Cross and the justices of the peace with letters and calls demanding that they forgo the election and just "write the letter."
Multiple posts and comments on Friday and early Saturday on the group's Facebook page expressed jubilation that a decision will be made, but some were disappointed that Warner's Hard Rock proposal may be bypassed in favor of the Cherokee Nation.
"I want to know exactly why they are making this choice. I want to know exactly how this other casino will benifit the community more than hard rock," James Ray posted on the page Saturday. "I am beyond upset. I highly doubt anything would have brought more tourism and things other than gambling other than hard rock. Now we will be stuck with a junk crappy casino."
Chris Webb said in another Pope County Majority post that the battle for the group was to "get a resort for our county like we deserved."
"We have won that battle. Let's not get hateful and angry because we can't choose the one we want. We knew that wasn't an option," Webb said. "We've seen the offers for the most part. Let's just look forward to our amazing resort!"
Jett said in an interview Saturday that no matter which casino is ultimately chosen, the resolution is expected to be signed Tuesday by the Quorum Court and the subsequent letter she said Cross has promised her would follow is a hard-won victory for the group.
"We have believed all along that our judge and Quorum Court would make a solid choice for Pope County when they realized we were in fact the majority," Jett said. "We proved it and we are ecstatic. We trust their decision and yes this is victory for us."
Jett added that as divisive as the issue has been, that it has rallied the community like never before.
"I think this has reignited the belief that a community can come together on a single issue as one; that everyone's voice really does matter and that service to humanity is the best work of life," she said.
SundayMonday on 08/11/2019