Governor Opposes Casino

Thursday, April 19th 2007, 10:41 am
By: News On 6

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) -- An Oklahoma group trying to win approval to build an Indian casino in Fort Smith won't have the backing of Gov. Mike Beebe. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians has petitioned the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for permission to open the casino. The agency has not made a decision yet and final word could be a couple of years away. Fort Smith developer Bennie Westphal says the Oklahoma-based tribe wants to build a $131 million casino and hotel near downtown Fort Smith.

The law that allows Indian casinos indicates that the willingness of the governor to have the casino in the state may be a factor in the final decision.

Beebe first said Wednesday he would leave it to local officials to determine whether they wanted the casino but later said he would oppose it after being told the federal agency would seek the governor's input. The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 says the Interior Department secretary would decide whether a tribe would be allowed to establish a gambling operation "but only if the governor of the state in which the gaming activity is to be conducted concurs in the secretary's determination."

Other portions of the law indicate a governor does not have final say in the matter. The decision could be sent to a mediator.

The Keetoowah argue they should get the permit because the land is adjacent to their reservation.

Lyndel Hobbs, a member of Friends of Fort Smith, which is opposed to the casino, said the sentiment of the governor should carry a lot of weight.

"We're grateful for his (Beebe's) opposition," he said.

Westphal said his focus has been on winning support within the community. He said he's not sure what effect Beebe's opposition would have.

"We'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it," Westphal said.

The Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of the casino, while the city board has not staked out a position. Mayor Ray Baker opposes the casino.

Among members of Congress, Rep. John Boozman, a Republican, is against the casino, as is Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln has not yet chosen a position.