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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

The window officially opened Wednesday for applicants to submit their bids to a Russellville committee that is to review proposals for a Pope County casino license.

The 21-page request for proposals, approved Tuesday by the Russellville City Council, gives interested casino operators until noon next Wednesday -- a one-day extension from a previously decided deadline -- to submit their full applications for review by the city's Community Gaming Evaluation Committee.

The third draft of the document includes several guidelines and warnings to the applicants that the information and process will be open to public inspection.

Russellville Mayor Richard Harris and the committee faced criticism recently after some committee members suggested using nondisclosure agreements to keep financial details private. There was also previous discussion of possibly holding private meetings with the casino operators and communicating via email accounts available only to the applicants and committee members. The City Council has since approved a resolution prohibiting the use of nondisclosure agreements, and the committee instituted tools and policies to ensure that the process is open and transparent.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at arkansasonline.com/casinos]

The committee was established by the City Council on Sept. 5 after the Pope County Quorum Court's Aug. 13 surprise endorsement of Cherokee Nation Businesses, which proposed building a casino outside Russellville. The city also was excluded from sharing in millions to be distributed by Cherokee Nation around Pope County under a proposed agreement with the county. The question remains whether the city's committee will have any effect on which business is licensed by the state.

Warner Gaming of Nevada and the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma had encouraged Harris to get the City Council to conduct its own "open and transparent" vetting process and choose the best option for such a business.

Bill Warner, the president and chief executive officer of Warner Gaming, said Wednesday that a proposal for Hard Rock Arkansas will be submitted to the committee by next Wednesday.

"We have reviewed the city's request for proposals in detail," Warner said. "We're impressed by the evaluation system and very pleased to be participating in a fair and transparent process."

Robert McLarty, spokesman for Kehl Management, confirmed that the company would submit an application before the deadline.

Messages left for representatives with Gulfside Casino Partnership and the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce were not immediately returned Wednesday.

Chuck Garrett, chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses, in an email, did not say whether the casino operator would submit a proposal to the city's gaming committee, but instead said that a "respective and productive dialogue with local officials" will be maintained.

"And given that we intend to be long term partners, we are happy to provide ample information to the city government about our project and who we are," Garrett said. "As a result of the comprehensive vetting process put in place at the county level in which we and all other potential operators participated, we are honored to have the full endorsement and support of the Pope County Quorum Court. We remain wholly committed to moving forward with our plans to develop Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas, and look forward to receiving the license after the November 18 application deadline put in place by the Arkansas State Racing Commission."

A page added to the city's website -- Russellvillearkansas.org -- is dedicated to the casino issue to provide access to documents, announcements, meeting notifications and all of the committee's written responses to questions submitted by casino applicants.

As of late Wednesday, the webpage titled "Casino Evaluation Committee" had a link to the request for proposals and a notice: "Page Under Construction -- more information coming soon."

The newest version of the request for proposals prohibits casino applicants from "communicating directly" with any city employee and bars employees or other city representatives from providing any information or responding to any question concerning the casino process.

A central email account -- cec@rsvlar.ar -- was set up to receive written questions from the operators, and the responses will be posted on the city's dedicated webpage.

In bold type, the request for proposals cautions the applicants that "All materials or documents submitted to the Committee are presumed under the FOIA to be public records and the burden is on the Casino Applicant seeking to keep material or a document exempt from public disclosure to site [sic] the specific exemption under the FOIA."

Harris said Wednesday that the committee has not discussed when the submitted applications will be available for public viewing.

"A request has been made that the proposals be provided electronically to the committee email," Harris said. "Although not previously discussed, I see no reason why these would not be posted on the website."

On Oct. 7, the committee will host a public forum for the casino applicants to present their proposals. The venue for the event will be decided by the committee in an Oct. 4 conference call.

The committee will select the final applicant by Oct. 14, and the recommendation will be placed on the City Council's Oct. 17 agenda.

When asked if he would write a letter of endorsement for the committee's final selection, Harris said the focus now is on "committee results."

"However, I intend to keep my campaign promises," he said.

Harris and Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County, said during their campaigns that they would not endorse a casino license application unless it was the will of the voters.

Cross did not sign the endorsement for Cherokee Nation Businesses, but he did negotiate an economic development agreement that included an initial $38.8 million "economic development fee" that would be paid by the Cherokees and shared by the county, various other cities and nonprofit organizations. Russellville was not named as a beneficiary.

Amendment 100, which was approved by state voters in November, allows new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties if they have the support of local officials. The amendment also allows Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis to expand their operations into full-fledged casinos.

Pope County residents soundly voted against Amendment 100 in November and also approved an initiated county ordinance that said an election must be called to allow voters to decide if they want officials to back a casino applicant.

The state Racing Commission ruled earlier this year that the endorsements can come only from officials in office at the time the application is submitted. The Legislature also passed Act 371, which took effect in March and requires the same thing. But Amendment 100 does not state when those documents have to be dated or submitted. Gulfside submitted an application with endorsements of officials who have since left office.

The Racing Commission in June rejected all five applicants for the Pope County casino license because they did not have the proper endorsements. Gulfside has sued the Racing Commission.

After the county endorsed Cherokee Nation Businesses, the Racing Commission opened a second, 90-day window to accept applications. That window closes Nov. 18.

If a casino is to be placed inside city limits, Amendment 100 requires endorsements from the mayor as well as from the county judge or county Quorum Court.

Cross has said that neither he nor the Quorum Court will endorse another applicant besides Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Metro on 09/26/2019

Print Headline: City opens casino-filing window

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