Arkansas Citizens Movement Seeks Local Approval for Casino Projects


Under the blazing mid-summer sun, a representative from an Arkansas group known as Local Voters in Charge marched tenaciously towards the office of State Secretary John Thurston. In his wake, he bore the hope of more than 162,000 Arkansans manifested plainly in stacks of signed papers, seeking to rectify what some perceive as an affront to local democracy. The movement aims to enable local communities to choose whether to harbor casinos in their homes, an amendment to the state constitution.

This issue shed its first light in 2018 when Arkansas voters decided to tweak the state’s constitution. They welcomed casinos’ establishment in four of its counties: Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, and Pope. Despite the outcome favoring the pro-casino side by a margin of 54%, Pope County was one among eleven counties that held its ground against the overwhelming tide of pro-gambling sentiment. Indeed, the county found itself amongst 11 others from the state’s total of 75 that stood shoulder to shoulder against the constitutional amendment.

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While the battle was lost, the war bore no end as Local Voters in Charge leapt back onto their crusade. This time, the organization, composed of those who rooted against the 54% majority, sought to once more refine the state constitution. The inkling of change aimed to tether the possibility of casino projects becoming a reality to the absolute necessity of local voter support, a task that could only be achieved through a special, countywide election.

However, the road towards realizing this amendment is labyrinthine and fraught with pitfalls. For their vision of local support for casino authorization to hit the ballot list this November, the group’s petition must first bear at least 90,704 validated signatures from Thurston’s office. Additionally, their campaign must find favor in the majority of the state’s counties.

The campaign’s representatives stood resolute and confident, proclaiming that these thresholds have been reached and crossed, bringing them a step closer to guiding Arkansas’ future.

The dawn following America’s Independence Day found Pope County residents inching closer to their own kind of liberty: the freedom to decide whether to play host to a casino. Hans Stiritz, a prominent member of the Local campaign, buoyantly shared how Arkansans rallied behind their cause in masses, insisting on their right to mold their communities’ future.

In the referendum of yesteryears, nearly 61% of Pope County voters rejected the idea of housing a casino within their homes. Come November, they may see themselves voting once more, this time on the necessity of acquiring local approval before the Arkansas Racing Commission could grant any casino project a gaming license.

The referendum is but a single thread in the complex tapestry of legal entanglements surrounding the gaming concession in Pope County. Recently, the Cherokee Nation Entertainment, backed by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, submitted the only qualified bid as per the Arkansas Racing Commission’s recent ruling.

The Cherokees’ gambit involves a $300 million investment directed towards building the Legends Resort & Casino in Russellville. However, the landscape of the competition became more rugged as allegations and lawsuits dared to shake its foundation. A scorned competitor — Gulfside Casino Partnership based in Mississippi — who found their $405 million bid shunned due to lacking formal local support, accused Pope County authorities of utilizing coercive methods to handpick the Cherokee plan. Still, the sound and fury raged on with a verdict marked in the stars, awaiting the coming of November.