State Racing Commission accepts Cherokee Nation Business’ casino application

FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

The state Racing Commission accepted Cherokee Nation Businesses' application for the Pope County casino license on a "good cause" basis at a special meeting Wednesday morning.

The commission also voted to let a ruling stand without appeal by Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox that kicked Gulfside Casino Partnership's initially rejected gaming application back to the commission to judge on its merits.

The votes on both issues were unanimous and made with little discussion.

The commission will now turn the applications over to a contracted evaluator to recommend which operator should be awarded the Pope County casino license, commission chairman Alex Lieblong said during the meeting, which was held using video and telephone technology.

Gulfside's application — along with those from Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma, Kehl Management of Iowa, Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma — was rejected during the first application window which closed in May.

None contained endorsements from local officials who were in office at the time.

Gulfside sued the Racing Commission over the rejection of its license because its application contained endorsements from local officials who have since left office.

Constitutional Amendment 100 — which was passed by voters in 2018 to allow a new casino each in Pope and Jefferson counties and allowed the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis — requires endorsements, but does not stipulate when the endorsement must be made.

On March 25, Fox tossed Gulfside's application back to the commission, saying a rule by the commission requiring the endorsements be from officials in office at the time of the application was unconstitutional.

In August, the Cherokees received endorsements from county officials and resubmitted the application.

In January, that second window was “abandoned” by the Racing Commission after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, in the case filed by Citizens for a Better Pope County, issued and extended a temporary restraining order barring the commission from issuing a license for a casino in Pope County.

The Cherokees then asked the commission to accept its application under the "good cause" provision of the gambling rules.