RUSSELLVILLE -- Amid allegations of secret meetings, the Pope County Quorum Court on Tuesday night endorsed a proposal by Cherokee Nation Businesses to place a casino and hotel complex just north of Russellville and Interstate 40.
The Legends Resort and Casino beat out four rivals in the race to get the endorsement of county officials. The decision was no surprise to observers, as two rivals said over the weekend that they had been told who would win the endorsement.
There was little discussion among Quorum Court members before the decision was made to sign a one-page resolution to support the Cherokee Nation Businesses.
Of the 13 justices of the peace, eight voted to sign the resolution -- Phillip Haney, Caleb Moore, Reuben Brown, Jackie Heflin, Doug Skelton, James Kusturin, Ray Black and Ernie Enchelmayer. Four -- Jamie Jackson, Joseph Pearson, Bill Sparks and Tim Whittenburg -- voted against it, and Justice Blake Tarpley abstained.
"We thank the County Judge for the leadership and judgment he has demonstrated in selecting the proposal and operator best suited for Pope County and negotiating the most favorable terms possible in the Agreement," the resolution said.
County Judge Ben Cross addressed at length the packed room, with people also filling the foyer and out into the Pope County Courthouse parking lot.
He read from parts of an 11-page "Economic Development Agreement," which details the Cherokee Nation Businesses' proposal and stipulates that the company will pay -- in the form of a cashier's check -- a $38.8 million "economic development fee" within 30 days of "the successful resolution of all litigation or administrative challenges relating to the issuance of" a casino license for Pope County.
"I would not allow anything to go to the Racing Commission without an ironclad contract agreement because it's my job to protect Pope County," Cross said.
Amendment 100, approved by voters in November, allows a new casino in both Pope and Jefferson counties, and allows the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.
The amendment requires new casinos to have the backing of local officials, which looked unlikely in Pope County, where voters soundly rejected the amendment and approved an initiated county ordinance that would require officials to seek voter approval before backing a proposal.
The county ordinance was discussed at Tuesday night's special meeting, but no action was taken. The Quorum Court also did not discuss any other casino proposals.
Cross and the members of the Quorum Court were sued Tuesday by Citizens for a Better Pope County, represented by James Knight. The suit asked that no casino be endorsed without first holding an election as required by the initiated ordinance.
Cross also addressed rumors and allegations of lack of transparency in the process.
"I've been very transparent. I've held multiple public meetings," Cross said. "I've met with every side of this issue I can meet. [Russellville] Mayor [Richard] Harris and I walked into a meeting with the Choctaws in April at the Marriott, and the first words out of my mouth were, 'Don't tell me anything you don't want me to tell your competitor.'"
Moore -- who was named in a complaint filed Monday with the Pope County prosecutor by another Quorum Court member and seven citizens alleging violations of the state Freedom of Information Act -- read for several minutes from a written statement, saying that the casino issue has been personally draining for him, but that he felt "we" came to a good decision in endorsing the Cherokee proposal.
Moore declined to comment when asked afterward by an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter whom Moore was referring to when he said "we" and if he had communicated either in person or electronically with fellow justices of the peace to reach the decision to endorse the Cherokee Nation Businesses' proposal.
On Monday morning, the Cherokee Nation Businesses unveiled an updated proposal featuring renderings of a $225 million resort that would include 50,000 square feet of gambling with 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, as well as sports betting.
The resort also would feature a 200-room luxury hotel, a 15,000-square-foot meeting and conference center, a resort pool, an outdoor music venue, a recreational vehicle and dog park, and an outdoor water park.
The project would be completed in one phase within 18 months and would create about 1,000 direct jobs, according to the statement.
In the Economic Development Agreement -- which was signed by Cherokee Nation Businesses Executive Vice President Charles Garrett and attorney Dustin McDaniel of Little Rock -- the $38.8 million upfront investment will be distributed among 17 different entities, including several cities in Pope County, education foundations and other nonprofit organizations.
However, the city of Russellville is not one of those that would receive money. The Russellville City Council passed a resolution Monday directing the mayor to meet with casino officials.
Pope County is earmarked for a $27.6 million piece of the pie while five cities share about $10 million -- $3.3 million to the city of Pottsville, $3.5 million to the city of Atkins, $1.4 million to the city of London, $1.5 million to the city of Dover and $242,427 to the city of Hector.
The Pope County Fire Association is allotted $130,000, and the Crow Mountain Fire Protection District will receive $800,000, according to the agreement.
Among the educational and nonprofit organizations receiving funds were the Arkansas Tech University Foundation at $30,000, the Russellville Center for the Arts at $25,000 and the River Valley Arts Center at $10,000.
The Cherokee Nation Businesses is also giving $2 million for each year it is in operation to a charitable foundation established by the county.
Ongoing contributions also include $25,000 every two years to the Arkansas Tech University Foundation for "purposes of study/research relating to the economic impact of the Project." Another $100,000 will be contributed annually to the Russellville Economic Development Alliance.
The amounts of the revolving contributions will be adjusted every five years to "reflect the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index," according to the agreement.
Shawn Slaton, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in an email after Tuesday's meeting that they were excited about the Quorum Court's decision to sign the resolution and accept the agreement.
"From the onset, we have pledged to be an honest, financially stable and community-driven operating partner," Slaton said. "We are thankful for and excited about this opportunity and remain diligently focused on the future and continuing our collaborative efforts with local officials and the community at large."
Gulfside Casino Partnership, which was issued letters of support from two officials in Pope County just before they left office in December -- has said in the past that it will seek legal remedies if its application was rejected based on the letters of endorsements coming from previous officeholders.
When contacted after the meeting, Gulfside co-owner Terry Green said the company stands behind its application to the Arkansas Racing Commission, which was rejected along with those from the other four contenders for the Pope County casino license -- Kehl Management of Dubuque, Iowa; Warner Gaming of Las Vegas; Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Durant, Okla.; and the Cherokee Nation Businesses. They were rejected by the Racing Commission because none contained the required endorsements.
"Gulfside has been -- and continues to be -- committed to building a first-class resort," Green said. "When we receive a license, we will fulfill our vow to bring good-paying jobs, economic development and philanthropic dollars to the community."
Warner Gaming and Choctaw Nation representatives said Saturday that Cross told them Friday that the Cherokee Nation would be given the endorsement at Tuesday's special meeting.
Earlier Tuesday in a telephone interview with a Democrat-Gazette reporter, Cross denied the allegations and said the casino operators were "mistaken."
John Burris, spokesman for the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce, said after the meeting that the organization is still hopeful that the Quorum Court will consider additional proposals.
"Each should be measured by the benefit they bring to Pope County," Burris said. "Our priorities are economic development, education and workforce growth. We believe that most aligns with Pope County voters."
A Section on 08/14/2019
Print Headline: JPs opt to back Cherokee group for new casino, hotel near I-40