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

The Pope County Quorum Court and five of the county's six municipalities are drafting resolutions and letters urging the state Racing Commission to issue a casino license to Cherokee Nation Businesses, the county judge said Friday.

Russellville Mayor Richard Harris is the lone holdout and will not be urging the commission to make a decision either way.

Ben Cross, the county judge of Pope County, said the Quorum Court members are taking the time to review some drafts of their resolution supporting the Cherokees' application for the license for a casino in Pope County.

"Right now, there is no planned meeting to address it," Cross said.

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

The mayors of five municipalities -- Rowdy Sweet of Atkins, Roger Lee of Dover, Jim Frost of London, Carey McGee of Hector and Randy Tankersley of Pottsville -- are drafting letters to the commission.

The casino issue has caused a great divide in the area, pitting pro-casino efforts against those who do not want a casino in the county.

Constitutional Amendment 100, passed by state voters in November 2018, allows a new casino each in Pope and Jefferson counties and allowed the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.

Amendment 100 requires the new casinos to have endorsements from local officials.

Pope County voters overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 100 and even went so far as to pass a since-repealed initiated ordinance that would have required local officials to get voter approval before endorsing a casino applicant.

On May 1, 2019, the Racing Commission began taking applications for licenses in Jefferson and Pope counties.

The commission awarded the Jefferson County license to the sole applicant, Quapaw Nation, to build the proposed $350 million Saracen Casino Resort.

But the commission rejected the five applicants for the Pope County license -- the Cherokees of Oklahoma, Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, Kehl Management of Iowa, Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma -- because none were endorsed by local officials who were in office at the time of the application.

The Racing Commission had created Rule 2.13.4(b) -- which requires endorsements only from local officials in office when the application is submitted -- and the Legislature also passed Act 371, which requires the same thing.

Gulfside sued the Racing Commission because its application included endorsements, albeit some from local officials who had left office in December 2018.

On March 25, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox kicked Gulfside's application back to the Racing Commission to consider it "on its merits." Fox ruled that both the commission rule and new law were unconstitutional because they impose "an additional qualification, sometimes referred to as a 'negative' qualification, beyond the plain and unambiguous language of Amendment 100."

Last year, the commission opened a second application window -- that has since been abandoned -- after the county Quorum Court and Cross backed the Cherokees for the license.

The Cherokees had agreed to fund a $38.8 million "economic development agreement" that benefited the county, some municipalities and nonprofit organizations. Russellville was not in the agreement.

RUSSELLVILLE OUT

Harris, Russellville's mayor, said he has no problem being the only mayor not backing the Cherokees.

"I have respectfully declined to be a part of any letter endorsing a casino for Pope County," Harris said. "The citizens of Russellville have yet to inform me through an election process that they desire any casino operator, and I will respectfully uphold the will of the voters on this issue as long as I am mayor. If at some time in the future, a license is granted to a casino operator in our county, I will work with that casino operator in the best interest of our city."

But the county's initiated ordinance that required voter approval before officials endorsed an applicant was repealed by the Pope County Quorum Court in October 2019.

After Fox's ruling, Cherokee Nation Businesses asked the commission to accept its application based on "good cause shown," as cited in a commission rule.

The rule states: "Applications for a casino license will be accepted by the Commission for a period of thirty (30) days, beginning on the date established by the Commission and published as a legal notice by the Commission. No Applications will be accepted after the thirty (30) day period, except for good cause shown."

The Racing Commission has not acted on the Cherokees' request.

"We hope to see action taken soon by the Arkansas State Racing Commission to accept our application into the May 2019 period for 'good cause shown.' We are thankful for the strong expressions of support from incumbent elected officials, including Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court, as well as the community at-large," said Chuck Garrett, chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses. "As the operator of choice for Pope County, we remain highly optimistic and look forward to bringing Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas to the River Valley."

Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said Friday that a decision on whether or not to appeal Fox's ruling to the state Supreme Court has not yet been made "but must be within 30 days of Judge Fox's ruling."

"The Commission does not have a meeting scheduled to consider the Pope County casino license," Hardin said.

FOUR SITES

Of the county's six municipalities, only four -- Dover, London, Pottsville and Russellville -- are eligible as possible casino sites, according to the stipulations of Amendment 100, which requires the casino to be located "within two miles of Russellville," the county seat.

Atkins and Hector are more than 2 miles from Russellville.

Frost, the London mayor, originally endorsed Gulfside in an April 18, 2019 letter, which Gulfside included in its application. The application also included an April 25, 2019, endorsement from Lee, the Dover mayor.

Other support letters for Gulfside included those from Jim Ed Gibson, then-county judge of Pope County; Randy Horton, then-mayor of Russellville; David Rieder, mayor of Clarksville; and Herman Houston, county judge of Johnson County. Gibson and Horton left office in December 2018.

"During the application period which closed May 30, 2019, Gulfside submitted letters of support from the Pope County judge, mayors from Russellville, Dover and London," said Lucas Rowan, attorney for Gulfside. "[Cherokee Nation Businesses] submitted no letters of support in its rejected application and waived its right to appeal. The Racing Commission should issue Gulfside a license on the merits of its application without further delay."

The Racing Commission has been inundated with letters, emails and other correspondence from all sides of the debate. Many support Cherokee Nation Businesses, while others say no casino is best.

"Every member of the Racing Commission receives the feedback from Pope County citizens. As they are received, emails are immediately forwarded to Commissioners," Hardin said. "Throughout this process, public comment has been accepted and encouraged. It plays a key role by providing the Commission an understanding of local public opinion."

Public comments can be sent electronically to [email protected] or by mail to Arkansas Racing Commission, 1515 W. Seventh St., Suite 505, Little Rock, Ark. 72201.

Metro on 04/04/2020

Print Headline: Mayors, JPs call to license casino

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