Group against Pope County Casino submits signatures ahead deadline
July 12, 2022
A group called Fair Play for Arkansas 2022, financed by the Choctaw Tribe, that has been aiming to remove Pope County from the list of counties in Arkansas that allows a casino, claimed to have collected and submitted more than 103,000 signatures ahead of the state deadline.
The number exceeds the legal requirement of 89,151 and was submitted before the Friday deadline last week. The state deadline was the last chance for political committees that seek to place a referendum question on the 2022 ballot to submit their signed petitions.
Hans Stiritz, the spokesperson for Fair Play for Arkansas 2022, said that the group was “extremely grateful for the support” from the state-wide voters. The submission will go through the Arkansas Secretary of State who will determine whether the signatures are valid. If it passes the validation process and is granted approval on its proposed referendum title, wording, and language, Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 will have its proposal on the November ballot.
The 2018 amendment
Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 argues that the 2018 amendment to the Arkansas Constitution unfairly forces a gaming project on the county residents. The amendment itself was approved in 2018 by Arkansas voters with only 11 out of Arkansas’ 74 counties voting against it. Pope County was one of the 11 counties that voted against the 2018 gaming referendum.
The amendment modified the state constitution to permit one casino each in the counties within Arkansas, which are Pope, Jefferson, Garland, and Crittenden. The proposal for the campaign was mainly funded by the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), the Downstream Development Authority of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, and Delaware North, a gaming and hospitality giant based in New York.
The initiative allowed Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Garland, and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, Crittenden, which is run by Delaware North, to be transformed into full-fledged casinos, completed with Vegas-style slot machines and table games.
Meanwhile, local officials in Jefferson went into a partnership with the Quapaw Tribe for its casino opportunity. In return, the business brings new jobs and tax revenue to the state.
CNB itself is known to be a wholly-owned conglomerate of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. The tribal entity poured more than $2.2 million in cash contributions into the ballot effort. Its proposed casino resort in Pope County is planned to be located near Russellville, in northwest Arkansas, and features 1,100 slot machines, 32 table games, and 200 hotel rooms with a $225m value.
The plot twist
The 2018 gaming authorization requires the casinos in Pope and Jefferson to submit their gaming bids and a letter of support from the sitting county judge to the Arkansas Racing Commission. Back then, CNB acquired support from then-Pope County Judge Tim Fox.
However, Pope left his office in the 2018 election and was succeeded by Judge Ben Cross, who subsequently opposed the CNB casino plan. With nearly 61% of Pope County voters rejecting the referendum in 2018, Cross alleged that Fox and CNB were involved in collusion during the referendum campaign and refused to write a letter of support.
As a result, CNB is involved in a competitive bidding process against a Mississippi-based entity called Gulfside Casino Partnership. Butch Rice, a commissioner at Arkansas Racing Commission, was then found to have a bias in reviewing the proposal, prompting current Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office to intervene.
Last November, CNB was eventually recognized as the rightful recipient of Pope County’s gaming project.