Pine Bluff and Jefferson County officials joined members of the business community Friday to kick off what they hope will be the beginning of an economic transformation for Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. During a meeting at the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, John Berrey, the Chief of the Quapaw Indian Tribe, laid out plans for the construction of a resort and casino in the county that would create 1,000 new jobs.
The resort and casino would be one of three licensed by the state under a plan offered by a group Called Driving Arkansas Forward, with 65 percent of the tax revenue generated going toward the State Highway and Transportation Department fund to pay for road and bridge improvements.
“Our highway system must be a priority if Arkansas wants to remain competitive nationally and provide the best economic opportunities,” said Nate Steel, counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward. ’This amendment focuses on highway funding while creating a fair, transparent and merit-based process for issuing gaming licences. We can no longer afford to lose potential gaming revenue to surrounding states when we have the opportunity to keep that money here and create jobs in communities that need them.”
On Friday, the group submitted the popular name and ballot title of a proposed constitutional amendment to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to certify or reject the proposed title, which must be done within 10 days. If the amendment is certified, then the group will begin the process of collecting signatures for the issue to be placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
The proposed amendment to the constitution would authorize the Arkansas Lottery Commission to approve a license for a casino in Jefferson County; one of the requirements for that license is that the person or persons applying must have prior experience in casino operations.
Berrey, whose tribe currently operates a casino in Oklahoma just across the border from Joplin, Missouri, cited the tribe’s history with Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, including the burial site for Chief Saracen, Saracen Lake and Saracen Landing.
“This is a chance to bring Pine Bluff back to its old self,” Berrey said. “It’s a big deal for the citizens of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.”
Appearing with Berrey were Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV.
Since she has been in office, Washington has talked about Pine Bluff being a “place of destination with the right partners to help achieve the goal.”
“I believe we can be partners,” she said.
Wilkins described it as a “process of cooperation to make good things happen.”
According to a press release, the Lottery Division of the Department of Finance and Administration would issue licenses through a merit-based selection process, with the approval of municipal and/or county leaders where the casinos will be located. No more than three casinos would be licensed statewide with no more than one per county, and issued only to counties that meet certain population and economic criteria.”
After Jefferson County receives the first license, a second would go to Crittenden County, while the third would go to either Miller, Mississippi, Pope, Union or White counties.
A minimum $100 million will be required to be invested in each casino.
In addition to the 65 percent tax revenue dedicated to highways, 22.5 percent of the revenue would go to the city where the casino is located and 10 percent to the county where the casino is located. The Arkansas Lottery Division, which will regulate the casinos, would receive 2.5 percent of the tax revenue.
In 2016, two proposed constitutional amendments, including one that would have authorized casinos, were thrown out after opponents challenged tens of thousands of signatures. Under state law, after the attorney general certifies the name and ballot title of a proposed amendment, the secretary of state is responsible for ensuring that petitioners, including those paid to collect signatures, follow the rules regarding the collection of those signatures.