QUAPAW TRACT: Is at center left

The board of the Little Rock Port Authority is expected today to approve plans to purchase more than 150 acres near the port currently owned by the Quapaw tribe of Oklahoma, an end to five years of controversy related to the potential use of the property for a casino.

The Quapaws have the inside track now on building a casino in Jefferson County under new Amendment 100. Bryan Day, director of the port, commented that the tribe no longer needed the land “since they got the amendment passed and have an option on land in Jefferson County.”

The deal: The port will buy 77.5 acres now for $1.45 million cash. It will also have a two-year option to buy an additional 77.5 acres within two years for $1.7 million. The Quapaws will retain ownership of a six-acre tract identified as a tribal burial site from the days before removal when they lived in Arkansas. It is to be preserved and protected from surrounding development, which includes the Welspun tube factory.

The sale price of $3.15 million works out to $18,700 an acre, against the roughly $10,000 an acre the Quapaws paid in the purchase of the 160-acre family farming tract, to the surprise of the port. Thus the tribe will realize a profit of more than $1.5 million. The purchase money will come from funds provided to the port through a 2011 Little Rock sales tax, a portion of which was designated for port development.

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Day said no commission will be paid in the transaction. He said he and John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaws, negotiated the deal. Berrey tells me the final offer improved significantly from initial proposals. He surmised the early proposal might have reflected some prior opposition to the Quapaws from others in the business community and on the port board, apart from Day.

After the Quapaws revealed the purchase, the business community — the Port Authority, County Judge Barry Hyde, Mayor Mark Stodola, the governor, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and members of Congress — began raising objections and proposing various means to limit Quapaw use of the land. Berrey acknowledged at the outset that the tribe might consider a casino, such as it operate elsewhere, but he also said its first interest was getting trust protection so it could function autonomously on tribal land as other tribes do and protect the archaeologically significant part of the property. He notes tribal pottery has been found on the land.

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“It’s an extremely important piece of property to us,” he said.

Berrey acknowledged the passage of Amendment 100 played a role in the land sale. But he also said the tribe wanted to be a good member of the community and recognized the opposition that had arisen to Quapaw use of the land. He confirmed, too, that the Oaklawn Jockey Club, which has a casino in Hot Springs that will enjoy expanded gambling and a lower tax rate under Amendment 100, had been influential in initial Little Rock opposition to his tribe’s use of the land. But he said that was in the past. He said the tribe had received assistance from Oaklawn in preparations for the campaign to pass Amendment 100. The track officially took no position on the amendment, but its lack of opposition was taken as support, particularly given the extra money it will get from a tax cut, contributions to its horse racing purse fund and expansion to conventional casino games and sports wagering.

“We’re glad it worked out,” Berrey said.

Day said he thought the purchase was a “fair” deal for the port. He said prices have risen in recent years as the port has pursued acquisitions to expand land available for industrial use. He said there are no immediate plans for the Quapaw parcel. It first must be developed with utilities and a rail connection. He said the port had recently made a land purchase, including a house, for $22,000 an acre and a group that hoped, but failed, to win a marijuana cultivation permit was now marketing its property near the port for $32,000 an acre.

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Day said the small parcel of tribal land to be protected is on the southern, or “back” side of a linear piece of agricultural ground and should be relatively easy to protect.

“We’re excited about it. We look forward to a long relationship,” Day said.

Despite what might have been said about an interest in the larger parcel in the past, Berrey commented today: “We do feel like it’s important to be seen as part of the community. They need that land to increase the port and we want to protect our archaeological treasure there. We got a fair deal.”

In talking with Day, I said that you could say the Quapaw tribe was reaping a profit courtesy of Little Rock taxpayers to help create jobs in Pine Bluff. He said that was a “stretch.”