CASINO CONCEPT: Fayetteville architect Marlon Blackwell's design of a potential Quapaw casino development in Pine Bluff.

John Berrey, chairman of the Oklahoma-based Quapaw Tribe, says he hopes to have a permit for a casino in Pine Bluff by the end of April, to be “digging dirt” by June and to open a casino in Pine Bluff early in 2020.

I talked by phone with Berrey, whose tribe was a major underwriter of the campaign to pass Issue 4, which expands casino gambling at Oaklawn and Southland racetracks and authorizes permits for two new casinos in Jefferson and Pope County.


Berrey said he’s been working for five years with Pine Bluff officials and hopes that will be part of the reason his group will prevail in the permitting process, which will be open to any would-be casino operators. He says the group has an option on land on the southwest side of the city, but isn’t ready to reveal the precise location yet. Some land lies outside the city and would be voluntarily annexed. He says the tribe wants an orderly planning process and envisions developing some 180 to 220 acres initially.

Some enabling legislation will be passed at the session beginning in January to put the new casino amendment into effect. But Berrey said the amendment was carefully written to limit legislative alterations. He said he hoped a permit application could be filed by April with the Racing Commission, which oversees casino gambling in Arkansas, and awarded by the end of the month. He said most of the regulation will pertain to auditing and other rules on gambling and accounting practices.


With a permit in place, Berrey said construction could begin in June. He said it took 10 months to build a casino the tribe operates in Joplin, Mo., a development that he said has been worth several billion in associated economic activity to that city. So that could put completion of a Pine Bluff casino by the first quarter of 2020. He said the aim would be to have the casino and restaurant operating as soon as possible, but said it might take longer to complete the hotel portion of the project.

He said the casino would offer all gambling options, including a sports book, but he said sports wagering was not a major focus of their operation because it has a low profit margin.


The Quapaw Tribe is a government, not a shareholder-owned corporation, Berrey emphasized. He said it would devote more to community development than a casino corporation driven strictly by the bottom line. “We’re about building communities,” he said. “Our goal is to make it a better place for people to live.”

Berrey noted that the Pine Bluff area as well as Little Rock were historic Quapaw homelands.

The Cherokee tribe, another investor in the Issue 4 campaign, has been mentioned as a possible applicant for a permit in Pope County. But a local referendum there that was approved Tuesday calls for a vote before a casino can be built in that county. The state-approved amendment says only that a county judge or mayor’s approval is necessary. There’s some question, then, whether the local ordinance can add a vote requirement on the state amendment. That could require a court resolution.

Either way, Berrey said, “It would be a tough time to go in right now.” A potential casino developer there might have to do some public relations work first and sell potential economic benefits. Over time, for example, the nuclear reactor near Russellville will near the end of its life and possibility of new economic development might make a casino an easier sell.


Speaking of politics: Berrey confirmed that federal law says that tribal land put in trust can be used for any type of gambling otherwise permitted elsewhere in the state. Thus, I asked, couldn’t that law be used should the Quapaw Tribe seek to have its land near the Little Rock Port designated trust land? Local officials have taken a number of steps to prevent the Quapaws from doing that after they acquired the land.

While confirming my understanding of the law, Berrey added, “Putting land into trust has become more and more difficult and political.” It requires approval of members of Congress, a governor and other local officials.  “I just don’t see it happening,” he said.