Proposed Fort Smith casino hits regulatory snag 7-15

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - A regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has recommended that a proposal by an Indian group for a casino in Fort Smith be rejected.

A spokesman for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians says the group will appeal the Wednesday decision by the Eastern Oklahoma office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the main office in Washington, D.C., deny the group's application for a land trust.

The Oklahoma-based group wants to build a $131 million casino and hotel near downtown Fort Smith.

Regional Bureau of Indian Affairs director Jeanette Hanna said opposition from the Arkansas governor's office and area residents were among the reasons she recommends the application be denied. More than 2,500 letters opposing the casino were sent to Hanna.

However, the proposed casino does have a base of support in the city. Six of seven Fort Smith City Council members have said they support the proposal, and a citizen petition drew more than 3,300 signatures of people who want the gambling hall.

"The governor of Arkansas and his immediate predecessor have both provided strong opposition to the proposed gaming acquisition submitted on behalf of the UKB. In addition, the region received numerous petitions and comments from the general public in the state of Arkansas showing opposition to the gaming application," Hanna wrote in a memo to the main office.

Hanna also cited "jurisdictional problems" regarding other Indian tribes and "significant land-use issues." The Choctaw Nation is on record opposing the UKB application.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs must accept the land along the Arkansas River into federal trust before the band can be granted clearance from the Department of the Interior to open a casino.

Local developer Bennie Westphal has promoted the casino project and has provided land. The real estate would return to Westphal if the band does not place the land into trust within three years.