The Little Rock Port Authority board voted today to weigh in on the Quapaw Tribe’s application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put its 160 acres on Thibault Road in trust for the tribe. On a motion by Greg Joslin, the board agreed to issue a statement to be given to the B.I.A. by May 4. Pulaski County has a May 13 deadline to comment on the application. 

Board member Jon Wickliff said the board would do “due diligence” to study what it can and should do in response to the tribe’s desire and that “by no means is the port board taking a position.” But member Joslin said the deadline creates a “sense of urgency” and he thought the board “has to take a stand” against any development by the tribe that would interfere with the port’s business. Joslin proposed and consensus seemed to develop that unless the tribe will sign an agreement with the port that it will not use their land, adjacent to Welspun, for a casino or any other “non-conforming use” that would run counter to the industrial business the port hopes to attract, the authority will object to the trust designation.

The Quapaw application for the U.S. to hold the land in trust cites its desire to protect the prehistoric burials and evidence of Indian settlement on the land. Trust land is federal land, not subject to city, county or state jurisdiction or local taxation. 

If Quapaw Chairman John Berrey’s response to questions from the City Board of Directors yesterday is an indication, the tribe will not commit to anything short of trust status for the land. Berrey said the tribe wasn’t interested in a conservation easement or “treaty” with the city or county, noting the poor record of those who would treat with Indians in the past.

County Judge Barry Hyde said he was encouraging Berrey to “be a part of the community instead of apart from the community,” and that there were “much easier ways to protect the land.” 

Former Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce head Gary Smith told the board that it was facing a “watershed moment” and that if the land was held in trust for the tribe by the federal government, the Quapaw “could put a Class 2 casino in there instantly.” He made reference to a lawsuit in Kansas over the tribe’s expansion of its casino in Oklahoma across the border into Kansas, and urged the board to get a commitment from the tribe that it would not build a casino “in writing.” He noted that the tribe had presented itself as a dog food maker during negotiations for the land, which it bought for $1.3 million, intimating that the tribe can’t be trusted when it says it has no plans for a casino. The tribe’s chair told the City Board yesterday that the much-talked-about expansion in Kansas was to a casino already on the state line for a possible addition to compete with Kansas plans for a state casino, if it materializes.

Only the county and the state have standing to comment to the BIA, but the port’s lawyer recommended that it weigh in, and Port Authority Board Chair Chris Matthews, characterizing the situation as “the most serious threat” the port has faced, said he hoped that Hyde’s response to the B.I.A. could incorporate the port’s statement.

Matthews said the Authority is absolutely on board with the Quapaws’ desire to protect the burial grounds and artifacts. But, he said, “$800 million has been invested in the industrial park area,” and that if the Quapaw land is developed in a way that interferes with traffic and prohibits the laying of rail lines it will devalue the port. 

The Quapaw bought the acreage from two different land owners a couple of years ago. The Port Authority,which does not bring in enough revenue to acquire land, did not have funds at the time to expand. Now, however, with a commitment of $10 million from the city from revenues from the 2012 sales tax increase, the port could draw down $2 million to $3 million, Matthews said. Board members are also concerned that if the Quapaw decide to buy more property, real estate prices will go up because there will be two interested buyers.