ith county officials looking on from the audience, the Russellville City Council on Thursday passed a resolution welcoming casino operator Cherokee Nation Businesses to town and tabled indefinitely an ordinance calling for an election to annex into the city land earmarked for a casino.
The action comes after months of conflict between the county and the city as well as lawsuits, complaints and rampant division among pro- and anti-casino groups.
Mayor Richard Harris —who campaigned with the anti-casino group— said after the meeting that discussions between him and Ben Cross, the county judge of Pope County, "will continue to reach a resolution." "I am comfortable with the actions that the council took this evening," Harris said, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Cross, who was present within the council's audience during the meeting, said afterward that he was pleased with the night's events. "I thought the actions of the City Council tonight represent a positive step towards the future of economic development in our region, and proactive movement towards a cooperative city/county development of future opportunities," Cross said.
The news comes on the heels of prior Monday's closing of the state Racing Commission's second window for submitting an application for a license to operate a casino in Pope County. Two operators —Cherokee Nation and the Choctaw Nation— submitted proposals to the commission. Cherokee Nation's application included endorsements from the Pope County Quorum Court as well as from Cross. Choctaw Nation submitted its proposal without any endorsements.
In November 2018, voters statewide approved Amendment 100, which allows new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties, and allows the expansion of casino gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis. The amendment requires new casinos to have the backing of local officials.
Pope County voters soundly rejected the amendment and also approved an initiated county ordinance that said an election must be called to allow voters to decide if they want officials to back a casino applicant. The county has since repealed that ordinance.
The second window for applications was opened up after all five applicants for the Pope County casino —Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma, Kehl Management of Iowa, Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma— were rejected by the Racing Commission in June because none contained endorsements by local officials, which is required by Amendment 100.
The Racing Commission ruled earlier this year that the endorsements can come only from officials in office at the time the application is submitted. Gulfside is suing the Racing Commission, saying its application was the only one that included the required endorsements, which were issued in December right before the city and county officials left office.
On Aug. 13, the Pope County Quorum Court passed a resolution supporting Cherokee Nation Businesses for a state license to operate a casino there. Cross had also negotiated an 11-page Economic Development Agreement with the Cherokees that included a $38.8 million "economic development fee" that would be disbursed among the county, some cities and some nonprofit organizations. Russellville was not included in the economic development agreement.
A casino gaming committee, established in September by the City Council shortly after the county's endorsement of Cherokee Nation, reviewed four proposals and voted to recommend Kehl Management for a casino license. But an endorsement by the city is moot in light of Amendment 100, which requires endorsements come from the county, regardless of whether a casino is built within city limits.
For the past few months, Harris and the City Council have explored strategies to annex 130 acres north of I-40 along Hob Nob Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail, on the northern edge of Russellville. If the land remains under the county's jurisdiction, the city will not receive any of the tax revenue from the casino. If the casino is built on city land, however, the city would collect 19.5% of the revenue and the county will receive about 8%.
Last week, Roger Lee, mayor of Dover issued a letter of endorsement for Cherokee Nation to build a casino there.