Cherokee Nation Launches Campaign Against Pope County Casino Referendum

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The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma is the odds-on favorite to secure the lone remaining casino license in neighboring Arkansas. Through its commercial unit, Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), the tribe is expected to be the only qualified bidder for the gaming concession earmarked for Pope County.

Campaign materials from a new political action committee funded by the Cherokee Nation encourage Arkansas voters to reject a 2024 casino referendum initiative. The Cherokee tribe is the betting frontrunner for the casino license in Pope County. (Image: Investing in Arkansas)

The Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) is fielding bids for the Pope casino opportunity. Bidding rules require that only applications accompanied by a letter of support from the sitting Pope County judge or current Pope County quorum court qualify.

The Cherokees’ proposal, called Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville, reportedly has the endorsement of both Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court, meaning all other bids would presumably be dismissed. However, a separate legal effort to repeal the license altogether threatens the Legends development.

To ensure it doesn’t, the Cherokees have initiated a campaign against the ballot referendum effort called “Investing in Arkansas.”

PAC Formed

In March, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (R) approved ballot language submitted by a group called “Local Voters in Charge.” The campaign seeks to repeal the Pope County casino license that statewide voters authorized through a 2018 ballot referendum.

The 2018 initiative found widespread support among state voters for four commercial casinos, with one each in the counties of Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope. But Pope County was one of only 11 counties of the 75 in Arkansas that voted against the casino question.

Local Voters in Charge seeks to call another gaming referendum asking statewide voters to rescind the Pope license.

Investing in Arkansas is spending millions of dollars to convince the public not to sign documents presented by canvassers with Local Voters in Charge. A minimum of 90,704 registered voters must lend their support to the Local Voters in Charge campaign for it to reach the November ballot.

Don’t be fooled. Refuse to sign the casino repeal,” the Investing in Arkansas campaign website reads. “The proposed constitutional amendment would undo the will of the voters and cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.”

Legends Resort & Casino, a $300 million development, would be expected to create over 1,000 direct permanent jobs and thousands of indirect jobs in the River Valley. The Cherokees believe the destination would generate a 10-year economic impact in excess of $5 billion. 

Local Voters in Charge says Pope residents never wanted the casino in the first place. And following a yearslong legal battle over the license, it’s time to reconsider its merits.

Out-of-State Interests

Local Voters in Charge is being bankrolled by the Choctaw Nation, another Oklahoma-based tribe. The Choctaws are funding the campaign to repeal the Pope casino license because a casino in the county would presumably threaten operations at the tribe’s casino resort in Pocola just across the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

Choctaw Casino & Resort Pocola features over 100 hotel guestrooms and a casino floor with more than 1,700 slot machines and 15 live dealer table games.

The Arkansas casino license reserved for Jefferson was awarded to the Quapaw Nation, yet another tribe headquartered in Oklahoma. The tribe opened Saracen Casino Resort, a $350 million undertaking, in October 2020.

The two other casinos Arkansans authorized through the 2018 referendum allowed racino racetracks in Crittenden and Garland, respectively Southland and Oaklawn, to become full-scale casinos with slots, live dealer table games, and sports betting.

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