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Bureau of Indian Affairs turns down Fort Smith casino plan

Fort Smith, Arkansas (AP)1-08

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has turned down a group’s request to approve a land designation that would open the way for a downtown Fort Smith casino.

The Tahlequah, Okla.-based United Keetoowah Band, with some 12,000 members, had proposed that the land be placed into federal trust, a required step for approval of an Indian gambling site.

But in a letter in early January, bureau Assistant Secretary Carl J. Artmann said the department completed its evaluation and decided not to accept the property into trust. Artmann concurred with the conclusions of regional director Jeanette Hanna, who cited the 92-mile distance between Fort Smith and Tahlequah, where the band is based and operates a casino.

He also noted that Gov. Mike Beebe and some residents were opposed to the project, although it has support within the city, including some members of the business community.

“There is the potential for an appeal (of the BIA decision),” United Keetoowah Band spokesman Randy Steinman said. “They will be deferring to their legal counsel about what their next steps might be. Naturally, they’re disappointed but they’re not devastated.”

In March 2006, Bennie Westphal, chief executive officer of The Westphal Group, announced the band bought 10 acres along the Arkansas River in Fort Smith and planned to seek approval to build a $131 million casino there.

An opposition group, Friends of Fort Smith, organized mailings and petitions that were sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both Beebe and former Gov. Mike Huckabee opposed the casino proposal.

In July, Hanna, the regional director of the Eastern Oklahoma office of the bureau, recommended denial of the request. She also cited “jurisdictional problems” regarding other Indian tribes and “significant land-use issues.” The Choctaw Nation went on record opposing the UKB application.

 

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