Those who gathered to determine Crawford County’s interest in a gaming and entertainment resort left Monday night’s meeting wanting to know more before supporting the pursuit of one of three casinos in Arkansas.
Crawford County is one of eight counties in the state that will be eligible to compete for a casino if the issue is approved by voters in November.
However, Attorney General Lesley Rutledge initially rejected the popular name and ballot title. If the amendment is certified by Rutledge, Driving Arkansas Forward would begin collecting signatures for the measure to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Several met at the Office of Emergency Management in Van Buren to hear about County Judge Dennis Gilstrap’s plan to seek a gaming and entertainment resort and distribute estimated receipts of $7.8 million to the county and its cities on a per capita basis.
“There is so much this could bring to the county,” Gilstrap said. “It would give Crawford County some breathing room with its budget. We are also fighting to stay in the black.”
Justice of the Peace Raymond Harvey said a resort in Crawford County would bring an initial investment of at least $100 million and more than 1,000 “good paying jobs.” He also said it would generate revenue for businesses already located in the county.
Harvey also was quick to address the stigma of crime which is often associated with casinos.
“Statistics show that the crime rate in Roland and Pocola which already have casinos is less than the national average which that of Crawford County is at 52 percent above the national average,” he said.
Harvey said the well-paying jobs might deter those who might be involved in crime and could provide additional revenue for those fighting drug and alcohol addictions as well as help the economy grow.
Gilstrap said he believes Crawford County has a good chance to get a gaming and entertainment resort if the issue is approved by voters because of its close location to Northwest Arkansas and being on the Oklahoma border.
“We have not reached out to anyone for the 25 acres that would be needed and no one has reached out to us,” Gilstrap said. “We need to be aggressive and think outside the box as far as a location along either Interstate 40 or Interstate 49.”
Some attending the meeting, including Van Buren City Planner Joe Hurst and Justice of the Peace Debbie Atwell, asked what happens if the casino issue is approved by voters.
“Do, we get into a bidding war?” Hurst asked.
The Arkansas Lottery Division of the state Department of Finance and Administration would issue casino licenses through a merit-based selection method, with approval from municipal or county leaders in the communities where the casinos may be located. The amendment authorizes no more than three casinos statewide, with no more than one in any county. The casinos would be placed only in counties that meet specific population and economic criteria.
The amendment would first authorize the Arkansas Lottery Division to approve a license for a casino in Jefferson County. A subsequent license would be issued in Crittenden County.
Crawford County is one of eight counties that would be eligible to compete for the third, according to Tim Walker, special project coordinator for the county.
Walker has sent letters to two potential investors, Boyd Gaming Corp. and Osage Casinos, expressing interest.
“We feel we have a prime location and reside in an area of population that would make us a front runner for one of the three casinos,” Walker wrote.
Gilstrap said the county needs to be “ahead of the curve” if the casino issue is approved by voters.
“I love Crawford County and believe this could be a great benefit,” he said. “If this develops, it could be working 24/7 for our county.”
Harvey said a gaming and entertainment resort would offer “a better life for our citizens and an opportunity for businesses to grow.”
Hurst said Van Buren’s projected proceeds from a casino would add 25 percent to the city’s current budget of about $12 million annually.
“That could be an incredible benefit,” he said.
Also at Monday’s meeting were Justice of the Peace Mark Shaffer, Rudy Mayor James Jones, Cedarville Mayor Mark Isenhower and Alma City Planner Buddy Gray.
The amendment allocates 65 percent of all casino tax revenues to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department fund to pay for needed improvements to the state’s roads and bridges.