Developers with ties to the Cherokee and Choctaw nations, as well as the Hard Rock Cafe's casino brand, were among the four entities to petition for a sole casino license in Pope County on Thursday, the deadline for applications to the state Racing Commission.
The other application, which came as a surprise to some officials, was submitted by the Kehl family, which operates several casinos in Iowa.
The four applications put in at the deadline join the Gulfside Casino Partnership -- which operates a venue in Gulfport, Miss. -- in vying for a casino in Arkansas' River Valley, despite opposition in Pope County. Gulfside submitted its application May 20.
During the application period, only one entity, the Quapaw Nation's Downstream Development Authority, presented a submission for the single casino license in Jefferson County -- where support is stronger among local officials -- before the deadline.
Arkansas voters approved Amendment 100 to the state constitution last year to place casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties. The amendment also allows Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand their operations into full-fledged casinos.
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the Racing Commission, said none of the four applicants Thursday submitted endorsements from county or local officials, as required by the amendment.
In Pope County, voters rejected Amendment 100. They also approved an ordinance that requires local officials to get voter approval before endorsing any casinos.
Gulfside, the earlier applicant, has submitted letters from former Russellville and Pope County officials, despite the Racing Commission deciding that it will only accept letters from current officials.
The Racing Commission will meet June 13 to consider whether any of the Pope County applicants will be accepted, Hardin said.
However, attorneys for Gulfside have already indicated plans to sue if the Racing Commission rejects the letters from former officials.
"As far as I know, there is still no qualified applicant that has applied," said Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, who said she is personally opposed to a casino opening in her home county.
Likewise, Russellville Mayor Richard Harris said he had met with the Choctaws, Cherokees and Warner Gaming of Las Vegas, which operates the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, about their proposals, and was not planning to endorse any casino.
Harris said he had heard that a fourth group planned to apply shortly before the Kehl family submitted its application.
County Judge Ben Cross, the administrator for Pope County who also has not endorsed any casino applicant, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Both the Cherokees and Warner Gaming announced their applications with news releases on Thursday. The Choctaws could not be reached for comment to give more information about their proposal.
The first group to hand in its application Thursday, Cherokee Nation Businesses, did so shortly before 10:30 a.m.
The group's chief executive officer, Shawn Slaton, released a statement shortly after stating, "Our continued promise is to respect the will of Pope County citizens."
"We are committed to earning further support of the community and the required letters of support from local elected officials," Slaton said. "This includes sharing exciting details of our proposed project plans in the near future."
Later in the afternoon, Warner Gaming CEO Bill Warner delivered his company's submission for a $230 million, 300-room hotel and casino on land in unincorporated Pope County.
According to a news release, the company's plans include a sports complex named for pro football and baseball star Bo Jackson to go along with a 44,450-square-foot casino.
"As we were getting some feedback from the people of Pope County as to what they wanted in a project, youth activities, sports, those types of things kept coming up," Warner said in a brief interview outside the Racing Commission's offices. "So I reached out to Bo, and he was willing to partner in on this sports complex."
Warner said the company would continue to meet with officials in Pope County about its plans, but that it would "respect the process" of the Racing Commission.
"My understanding is [officials in Pope County] want to have a strong say in the outcome," he said.
Dan Kehl, the CEO of Kehl Management, said in a phone call Thursday evening that his company is proposing to invest $216 million in a 300-room hotel along with a 60,000-square-foot casino. He added that the company planned to start a locally administered nonprofit organization to which the company will donate $25 million over five years.
"We're just going to sit back and see how this process evolves," Kehl said. "Hopefully, at some point, we'll get to present our case."
Gulfside's plans for a $200 million River Valley Casino Resort include a 300-room hotel along with a 60,000-square-foot casino, according to its website. Gulfside also has pledged to invest $20 million in education in Pope County, over a 20-year period, if awarded a casino license.
In Jefferson County, plans for the Saracen Resort Casino submitted by the Downstream Development Authority include a $350 million hotel-casino with 300 rooms on land east of the Pines Mall. Downstream Development submitted endorsement letters from the current Pine Bluff mayor and Jefferson County judge in addition to its application.
Also Thursday, Carlton Saffa, a senior strategist for Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office, announced that he would be leaving to accept a job in project development with Downstream Development. Saffa said that his new role would not include lobbying or government consulting.
A Section on 05/31/2019
Print Headline: Family from Iowa, Hard Rock Cafe, Cherokees and Choctaws apply for Arkansas casino license