The seven-member Arkansas Racing Commission favored the Gulfside Casino Partnership, 637-572, over the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma for the lone casino permit to build in Pope County, Arkansas. But one commissioner’s lopsided score against Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) is being labeled as biased.
Commissioner Butch Rice gave Gulfside a 71-point advantage (100/100) over CNB (29/100), ultimately granting Gulfside the coveted license, states an affidavit from an attorney representing Cherokee Nation.
Rice had a relationship with a co-owner of Gulfside, CNB states. Gulfside and CNB will meet with the attorney general to determine how to move forward. This will mark the fourth and final casino permitted under state law.
“On (June 16), I submitted a letter to the Attorney General’s office expressing my concern that an obviously biased Commissioner could potentially overturn the will of the rest of the Commission due to the proposed scoring system,” Dustin McDaniel, CNB legal counsel, said in a written statement. “Despite the AG’s office expressly warning Commissioners not to engage in arbitrary, capricious or biased scoring, Commissioner (Butch) Rice in fact single handedly overturned the score given by the rest of the Commission. We anticipate both an administrative appeal and a request for injunctive relief from a court. This is a uniquely significant state decision, and such an egregious act of bad faith should not be allowed to control it.”
Rice contends his decision was based on Gulfside’s capability to draw more revenue due to its proposed 500-room hotel versus CNB’s 200-room hotel.
A study released in February indicated that Cherokee Nation Businesses’ proposed $225 million Legends Resort and Casino could make a substantial economic impact on Russellville, the largest city in Pope County, to the tune of more than $3.15 billion over 10 years — though that’s a “conservative” estimate, CNB said at the time.
CNB, if granted the license, also committed to a $38 million economic development agreement with Pope County. CEO Chuck Garrett said CNB had “never filed bankruptcy, permanently closed a gaming facility, faced a tax lien or laid off any gaming employees. We strongly believe we do it better, we do it smart, we do it safer and do it for the good of the community,” he said. “We are ready to be part of Arkansas tourism fabric and serve as an economic anchor for the River Valley.”
CNB had bid to build the casino resort in Pope County with partner Legends — a business founded in 2008 through a joint venture between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Legends boasts a successful resume; previous partners include The University of Arkansas, AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Ultimate Fighting Championship and Live Nation amphitheaters.
If CNB had garnered the vote to erect its casino in Pope County, it would have marked the Nation’s first casino outside of Oklahoma.
Since Arkansans passed Amendment 100 to its state constitution in 2018, permitting four casinos in the state, one Tribe won a bid. The Quapaw Nation is gearing up to open Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The Nation’s Downstream Development Authority broke ground on the $350 million casino resort in Arkansas in August 2019, with plans to debut the resort in June 2020, featuring a 300-room hotel and an 80,000-square-foot gaming floor with more than 2,000 slot machines and 50 table games. An affiliated entertainment venue was slated to open in December 2020.
In the interim, the Tribe debuted Saracen Casino Annex, a smaller version of the forthcoming gaming attraction. The annex even started taking wagers on sports on October 1, 2019, the day after the Arkansas Racing Commission approved sports betting for Saracen Casino Resort.