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

The chief executive officer for Cherokee Nation Businesses said Wednesday that the company is committed to seeking voluntary annexation of its proposed casino site near Russellville into the city, and the county judge of Pope County signaled his support for such a move.

In its bid to the Arkansas Racing Commission for a license to build and operate a casino in Pope County, Cherokee Nation Businesses has been weighing two proposed casino sites, one near Russellville and one in Dover.

"In an effort to demonstrate continued transparency and the strategic thinking that has guided us to this point, it is important to emphasize that the economic benefit derived from Legends Resort & Casino will be greatest when located within or adjacent to the municipal borders of Russellville and near Interstate 40," Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Chuck Garrett said in a letter dated Wednesday to County Judge Ben Cross and Russellville Mayor Richard Harris.

"To that end, we appreciate Judge Cross supporting a voluntary annexation of our proposed site off Hob Nob Road," Garrett said.

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

Cherokee Nation Businesses looks forward to discussing and entering into an agreement with Russellville for city services and "our commitment to seek voluntarily annexation," Garrett wrote in his letter to Cross and Harris.

Cross said his support for Cherokee Nation Businesses' voluntary annexation of the proposed site near Russellville is aimed at ending speculation about where the Cherokees would locate a casino and about ending the perception that Pope County and Russellville didn't agree with the annexation.

"Regardless of who is awarded the license ... I will be a good partner and approve the annexation without the need of a special election," he said in an interview.

The other company vying for the license is Gulfside Casino Partnership, which also proposed using a site just north of I-40 off Exit 84.

But Harris said Wednesday, "The issue of a casino in Pope County has not yet been resolved.

"Therefore, while I appreciate the gesture made by the county, the city of Russellville should not be hurried in making any decisions at this time," he said in a written statement.

"The county has afforded us the time to consider their offer and to better ascertain the outcome of pending decisions by the Arkansas Racing Commission. It is in the best interest of the community as a whole to take our time in assessing the best option for our citizens," Harris said.

On June 15, the Russellville City Council voted down an agreement for Mississippi-based Gulfside and the Oklahoma-based Cherokees to voluntarily annex into the city if the license is awarded to one of them. Then the council voted to allow Harris to renegotiate signed agreements with the Cherokees and Gulfside and return to the council for reconsideration.

Lucas Rowan, Gulfside's counsel, said Wednesday in a written statement that "Gulfside is the only applicant authorized to locate in Russellville under the terms of Amendment 100."

"We remain steadfast in our commitment to the city, Pope County and Arkansas's economic growth, as was recently recognized by a majority of the [racing] commissioners," he said.

"Since the beginning of this process, we've been clear about our intention to voluntarily annex and provide $5.7 million in annual gaming tax revenue to Russellville," Rowan said.

The Racing Commission is authorized to award the Pope County license under Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution. State voters in November 2018 approved the amendment, but its rejection by voters in Pope County signaled the opposition faced by companies that sought the license there. The amendment allows the expansion of casinos at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis and allows new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties. The Jefferson County casino is under construction.

Six state racing commissioners voted Monday to find that the seventh commissioner, Butch Rice of Beebe, was biased in favor of Gulfside after he gave Gulfside a score of 100 and the Cherokees a score of 29 on June 18.

The seven racing commissioners, after analyzing presentations from the two applicants, on June 18 gave total scores of 637 for Gulfside and 572 for the Cherokees. But the 65-point difference was less than the 71-point difference in Rice's scores. The Cherokees complained about Rice's vote, and Rice disputed that he was biased.

The commission then decided Monday to delay action on how to proceed, to allow casino representatives and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office to attempt to reach agreement on a remedy.

"The 30-day time frame in which a license must be issued was initiated June 18 when the Commission declared scoring complete," Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which includes the Arkansas Racing Commission, said Wednesday. "We anticipate the Commission will meet by early July to make a determination on next steps within the 30-day period."

Gulfside and the Cherokees were the last two operators standing after all five original applicants -- including them -- were rejected by the Racing Commission in the first application period last year. All five were rejected because none met the commission's rule then in place requiring endorsements from local elected officials in office at the time of the application filing.

Gulfside sued the Racing Commission because its application contained endorsements from local elected officials who had left office in December 2018.

Endorsements are required by Amendment 100. However, the amendment doesn't specify that endorsements must come from officials still in office.

Earlier this year, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled unconstitutional the commission's rule and a state law with the same requirement.

The Cherokees resubmitted their application after being endorsed by the Pope County Quorum Court in August.

Cherokee Nation Businesses operates 10 casinos in Oklahoma. Gulfside Casino Partnership operates a casino in Gulfport, Miss.

In defending his scores of the two casino applicants, Rice on Monday brought up the uncertainty about where Cherokee Nation Businesses' proposed casino would be located in Pope County.

In his letter to Harris and Cross, Garrett said, "We have prepared the Hob Nob site as much as possible without breaking ground.

"Our civil engineering firm, Garver, has vetted infrastructure requirements and met with related utility providers," he wrote. "Ultimately, we have taken all of the necessary steps to ensure construction will commence immediately upon the receipt of the casino license and the resolution of any related litigation."

Garrett said he informed Dover Mayor Roger Lee about Cherokee Nation Businesses' intention to discuss and enter into an agreement with Russellville for city services and a commitment to seek voluntary annexation of the Hob Nob Road site near Russellville.

"We look forward to a very long friendship with Dover," he wrote.

Lee said in an interview that he would prefer for Cherokee Nation Businesses to locate its proposed casino in Dover, but that it's difficult to overcome the difference of locating the proposed casino off Hob Nob Road near I-40.

Attorney Clayton McCall, in a letter dated Wednesday to Russellville City Attorney William Smith, noted that Cross previously extended an unconditional proposal to Russellville that would provide the city with $2 million of the county's share of economic development agreement funds from Cherokee Nation Businesses. Cross had also offered the city a $2 million water park funded by the Cherokees.

But McCall also wrote that "Russellville's representatives should decide the water park's viability on the behalf of their constituents," adding that while the city would receive $4 million, the "form in which those benefits are directed is the city's choice."

Print Headline: Cherokees offer commitment on casino site

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