Keetoowah plan to build casino in Arkansas

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FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) – An Oklahoma-based Indian tribe has requested that land along the Arkansas River in downtown Fort Smith be designated as property being held by a trust so a casino can be built there.

The Keetoowah Band of Cherokees and Bennie Westphal, an Arkansas businessman who owns 75 acres along the river, have announced plans to expand the tribe’s gaming operation from Tahlequah, Okla., into Fort Smith.

The federally recognized tribe said it has applied for the trust property designation through the BIA. In the Fort Smith case, Westphal’s land is adjacent to the site of Keetoowah’s original reservation.

Nedra Darling, a spokesman for the BIA, said the agency has not received an application from the Keetoowah.

Darling said that if an application for trust property designation is received, the process generally takes 18 months or longer to approve. If the site is approved, it would be the fourth site of its kind in the nation.

“It would be considered an off-reservation site, and that’s rare. There’s only three of those in the country,” Darling said. Those are in Michigan, Washington state and Wisconsin, she said.

Federal law grants Indian tribes the right to offer the same games allowed in a state on land designated as trust property or on reservation property, and Arkansas voters permitted electronic games of skill at the West Memphis and Hot Springs racetracks last November.

Plans include a 250-room hotel and casino that would be staffed by nearly 800 full-time employees, but nearly 1,300 jobs could be created from the casino’s development.

The Fort Smith casino would have nearly twice as many slot machines as the tribe’s Tahlequah, Okla., casino and could generate $80.7 million in revenue during its first year of business, its supporters say. The Tahlequah casino does about one-tenth of that business.

“Most of our programs are funded from the casino revenue,” said George Wickliffe, chief of the Keetoowah tribe.

The money allows the tribe to offer its members many social services like housing and educational opportunities that include college scholarships, Wickliffe said.

But a representative for the Lost Cherokee of Arkansas, which has unsuccessfully tried to gain state recognition, said the tribe are opposed to the casino.

Cliff Bishop said the Lost Cherokee of Arkansas should be recognized so they could halt the project. Bishop said if the tribe were federally recognized, they would then have the authority to stop the Keetoowah from opening their casino.

“We’re going to try to stop them,” Bishop said March 7. “We don’t want gambling in here, but Arkansas just blew it. If they open it up without us getting recognized, then it’ll open the doors to all the other tribes who used to be here.”

And at least one area minister also is opposed to the casino.

Nelson Wilhelm, director of the Concord Baptist Association, said he would like to see a more family-oriented business take the property.

“We will talk to our city councilmen or whoever we need to, rally our congregations if that seems necessary ... The improvements, the condos, hotel, parkway and all that, if you would base that on family entertainment, good heavens, we’d be supportive of it,” Wilhelm said.

But local businessman John McIntosh said he thinks a casino is not necessarily a bad thing.

“If [a casino] fits in visually, if it fits in with the other businesses that are being planned for that area, if the tax base is shared appropriately and if it stimulates the rest of riverfront development, I think it will be a great thing,” he said.