Hard Rock claims the judges already decided to support Cherokee's proposal

Arkansas: Pope County Court discusses support for a new casino amid controversy

The $225 million Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas, released by Cherokee, features approximately 50,000 square feet of gaming space accommodating 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, and a sportsbook will be located within a high-end sports bar.
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A letter sent from Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group —partnered with Hard Rock— CEO Bill Warner to a judge suggested the court has already made up its mind. Officials with Choctaw Nation Division were also told a resolution would be issued to the Cherokee Nation. One of the judges asked the five contenders to submit their final offer, news reports say. Gulfside Casino Partnership appealed the denial of their previous application earlier this summer.

The Pope County Quorum Court could issue a resolution for a casino during today's called meeting at 5 p.m. inside the Pope County Courthouse.

According to the agenda, the quorum will discuss Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 100, which allows for a casino to be built in Pope County; and Pope County Ordinance 2018-0-42, an ordinance which requires a county vote before a letter of support can be written. Next on the agenda is a review of an economic development agreement and a potential resolution regarding Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 100.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross said Amendment 100 allows for two methods of support for a casino in Pope County. One is a letter from a judge and the other is a resolution from the quorum court. The quorum will discuss providing said resolution during today's meeting and will decide what to do, depending on the information it receives in the first two agenda items, Cross said. He stated he didn't know how the justices would vote. "You have 13 individuals that represent their voters," he said, according to The Courier. "So I don't know."

However, a letter sent from Tri-Peaks Entertainment Group CEO Bill Warner to Cross suggested the court has already made up its mind and told Warner as much, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Tri-Peaks is the company behind Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, another operator with interest in building in Pope County.

"Since you informed us on Friday that the Quorum Court has already decided to support the Cherokee proposal and no others, we do not feel that it makes sense for us to submit an updated proposal at this time," Warner wrote in the e-mail. Cross confirmed the email was legitimate but disagreed with the contents of the e-mail. Cherokee Nation Businesses, in partnership with Legends, released its project details on Monday.

"His [Warner's] representative came by on Friday, and I told him that we are going to have a special called meeting, and I told him it was to discuss our findings on Amendment 100," Cross said. "He took that to mean we were choosing Cherokee. They turned it into a media campaign."

Hard Rock made an announcement on Facebook on Friday claiming the quorum court had made a decision on a casino operator. "We’re disappointed to share with you that the quorum court will be issuing a resolution of support for Pope County next week, and it will not be for the Hard Rock Arkansas project... We have now been told that another applicant will be granted a letter of support on August 13. Remarkably, we were asked if we could submit our final offer after we were informed that a different operator will be selected. This clearly is not what we expected when we started this process."

Meanwhile, Gulfside Casino Partnership, who originally obtained letters of support from outgoing Mayor Randy Horton and outgoing County Judge Jim Ed Gibson, appealed the denial of their previous application earlier this summer. The application was denied after a rule stating the letters of support must come from current administration was added to the racing commission's rules governing casinos in Arkansas.

Gulfside said in a statement on Monday: "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 long-term benefits to Pope County."

Gulfside provided a side-by-side examining the supposed benefits of their casino over Cherokee Nation, with their numbers favoring Gulfside.

Hard Rock soon released similar numbers. "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," they wrote.

A letter sent on behalf of Citizen for a Better Pope County, a group against a casino, asked Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Phillips to investigate illegal meetings between members of the quorum court and Cherokee Nation. The group provided a timeline during which the alleged meetings took place, alleging video and audio recordings of the meeting exist. The group further claims that the meeting was moved back from Thursday to today as a "further subversion of public interest."

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, officials with Choctaw Nation Division, were also told a resolution would be issued to the Cherokee Nation. “I believe the quorum court and the judge will issue a letter of support. I believe, from hearsay, that it will be Cherokee Nation, and I think it’s going to be a wonderful relationship and partnership,” the Pope County Majority creator, Kelly Jett said. “As I’ve been lucky to meet every CEO of every single one of these [casino operators] and I haven’t met one that I don’t find to be a really great person and people to work with.”

Cherokee Nation began an ambiguous countdown in newspaper advertisements and on billboards for an announcement on Monday. The announcement was revealed as a casino proposal, with the quorum court meeting scheduled the following day.

Cross said all five proposals will be looked at in today's meeting. All five casino operators have proposed multi-million-dollar facilities that include casinos and other "family-friendly" recreational activities. Cherokee Nation Businesses is partnered with Legends, a company founded by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, to build 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 $225 million Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas features approximately 50,000 square feet of gaming space accommodating 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games, and a sportsbook will be located within a high-end sports bar. A luxury hotel will have 200 rooms, resort-style pool, spa and fitness center; 15,000 square feet of mixed-use conference and entertainment space accommodating 1,000 people, among other amenities.

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.

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