The Cherokee Nation, a major casino operator in Oklahoma, has released details of its plan for a casino resort in Pope County.

You may have heard, or read an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, about the extraordinary political machinations that have been underway in Pope County among five would-be casino developers, with recent indications that the Cherokees had moved to the head of the line in influencing Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Quorum Court. Two competitors have said Cross has told them the Cherokees would get the nod, so plans to have all competitors present plans wouldn’t go forward.


A special meeting of the Pope County Quorum Court is scheduled Tuesday. One prediction: The Quorum Court will vote to repeal the ordinance requiring a local vote before elected officials could sign off on a casino application.

Prediction two: Details will emerge of promised cash contributions to county projects from a winning casino developer. Has this money been solicited by local officials?


This is just about the smell you’d expected to arise from opening the door to a license to operate a casino cash machine in Pope County. It’s thick with politics. Former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has been working for the Cherokee effort for a long time. It gained heft when it joined hands with an entertainment company whose owners include Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones. Jones has local clout through his in-laws, the Chambers family in neighboring Yell County. Various prominent lobbyists and lawyers and PR agencies have been working for the competing interests.

Even if the Cherokee tribe has convinced the judge and Quorum Court of the superiority of its plan, legal obstacles await. A Mississippi casino investor contends it satisfied the constitutional requirement of local approval with letters from the lame-duck county judge and Russellville mayor in December, before they left office. Will the new county judge, after vowing not to approve a casino without local voter approval, as a 2018 county ordinance requires, pick the Cherokees? If he does, won’t somebody sue to enforce the voter ordinance? I think it’s constitutionally suspect, but it’s the law until a court says otherwise. If repealed, that legal obstacle is removed. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be political repercussions. Pope County voters rejected the casino amendment as well as approving the voter referendum. Promises of the glories of a casino investment are thought to have softened casino opposition locally, but I wouldn’t necessarily put much stock in a poll conducted on behalf of a casino operator on this question.


In any case, here’s the Cherokee news release:

 Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends, a leader in global planning, sales and hospitality, today announced details of its proposal to build a world-class, first-of-its-kind resort destination in Pope County – Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas.


“Since submitting our initial application to the Arkansas State Racing Commission in May, we have remained fully committed to the people of Pope County and to taking our proposed development to the next level,” said Shawn Slaton, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses. “Today, with much excitement, we are pleased to unveil our plans. We’ve embraced the community’s feedback and are confident this resort destination brings something for everyone.”


The name Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas is inspired by the definition of a Legend, and the project developed with the needs of the community in mind. Its thoughtfully planned venues and diverse entertainment choices create the perfect setting for guests to feel and be legendary. Throughout the resort and casino property, guests will enjoy a celebration of Arkansas’ legendary figures in sports, music and entertainment; its cuisine; and the landscape of The Natural State.

A unique project designed by international firm HKS Architects, Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas showcases architecture influenced by the distinctive natural landscape of the Arkansas River Valley. The development is planned for Russellville, Arkansas, on approximately 130 acres north of Interstate 40 along Nob Hill Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail.


The $225 million Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas brings more than world-class entertainment to the region by featuring robust amenities centered around relaxed luxury:

  • Approximately 50,000 square feet of gaming space accommodating 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games; a sportsbook will be located within a high-end sports bar.
  • Luxury hotel with 200 rooms, resort-style pool, spa and fitness center.
  • 15,000 square feet of mixed-use conference and entertainment space accommodating 1,000 people.
  • Robust culinary experience with a variety of food and beverage options – including a food hall, high-end steakhouse, grab & go concept and multiple bar and nightlife options.
  • RV park with 100 spots.
  • Outdoor water park providing fun for the entire family.
  • Outdoor music venue with beautiful spots for gathering and entertainment.

The total statewide economic impact of Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas is projected to exceed $5 billion in the first 10 years. The project is expected to generate more than 1,000 direct jobs, and the estimated timeline for completion is 18 months.


“From the onset, our goal in partnering with CNB has been to create a resort that truly offers something for everyone and provides an unmatched guest experience,” said Bill Rhoda, President of Legends Global Planning. “Most importantly, Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas will create a positive economic impact of benefit to Pope County and the state of Arkansas.”


“Our teams at CNB and Legends take pride in being dedicated and trustworthy community partners with the proven experience to make this economic development project a success. We remain committed to earning the letters of support from local elected officials,” Slaton said.

UPDATE: Speaking of the Mississippi casino operator, it fired back its own brag sheet.

Terry Green, co-owner of Gulfside Casino Partnership, released the following statement about the proposed River Valley Casino Resort in Pope County:

 For more than three decades, we have been strong community partners to the Gulf region. We have generously supported schools, first responders, nonprofits and local economic development efforts.

When granted a license in Pope County, we will do the same for the River Valley. During the application period, we submitted a proposal to the Arkansas Racing Commission to build a first-class casino resort. As evidenced by the side-by-side comparison, this now one-phase $254-million project will create significant tax revenue and stop gaming dollars from going to casinos in Oklahoma—enabling maximum long-term benefits to Pope County.

  Gulfside Casino Partnership Cherokee Nation
Total Investment $254,000,000 $225,000,000
Hotel Rooms 500 200
Gaming Space 80,000 sq. ft. 50,000 sq. ft.
Table Games 90 32
Slot Machines 1,900 1,200
New Jobs 1,695 Approx. 1,000
Estimated Payroll $60,511,619 Not publicly disclosed


And then came the Warner gaming interests, also among those left out in the cold:


From Bill Warner:

Hard Rock Arkansas remains willing to participate in an open evaluation process, if it is fair to all competitors.   As you can see by the following comparison, the recently released Legends project fails to exceed even our original proposal.

We’ve been invited to submit a new proposal at a hastily called emergency meeting, and have been informed that the selection of an operator has already been made, without any kind of public deliberation.    Obviously, this does not provide for a level playing field.   A closed evaluation process with a pre-determined winner deprives the public of the benefits of a competitive process, and does not allow for any kind of public input as to what citizens of Pope County would like to see in a hotel/casino project.
Should the quorum court decide to allow for a more transparent process, we stand ready to submit an updated proposal.
It, too, provided a side-by-side comparison showing it superior to the Cherokee proposal.
UPDATE TWO: KATV reports thaat an anti-casino group has asked the prosecuting attorney to investigate an unannounced meeting of members of the Quorum Court with Cherokee casino representatives. Such a meeting, if held, would have been illegal under the state Freedom of Information Act.