John Berrey Talks of Working on Pine Bluff Casino

John Berrey Talks of Working on Pine Bluff Casino
John Berrey (file) (Wesley Hitt)

John Berrey, longtime chairman of the Quapaw Nation that built the $350 million, 80,000-SF Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, lost his re-election bid on Saturday to Joseph Byrd.

“I'm looking forward to a bright future for everyone,” he said late Thursday. Then Berrey spoke with Arkansas Business by phone about his time in office and what this transition means for the Pine Bluff project.

What are some reflections on your time working on the Pine Bluff project, and how will you be involved — if you'll be involved— in it going forward?

Well, I’m not sure how I’ll be involved right now. It’s kind of in flux; it’s a transition going on. But I will say that it's been, it’s just been an awesome experience. The people that I've worked with and gotten to know were fantastic. I just think that the facility is going to be beautiful, and I'm so proud of my relationship with Mayor [Shirley] Washington and [County Judge] Gerald Robinson and the whole community. And I just think we’ve set the stage for a great future.

What’s the status of that project?

The annex is open, and it’s doing fine. We have our convenience store back open. We don’t have our food service going yet, mainly because of COVID. But things seem to be really going well. We should take over the building and have the construction completed in the next few weeks. We’re still planning on opening Oct. 1. We’re in the process of hiring people. We’re in the process of just getting it all cleaned up and ready to go. We’re looking to an Oct. 1 opening date.

What was the most challenging aspect of bringing that project to fruition?

Probably the most challenging aspect was doing the constitutional amendment, which we were successful, but that was a lot of hard work, a lot of networking and communication. And it turned out fantastic. That was probably the biggest challenge and, also, COVID has been a challenge on the construction side. We’ve struggled with some of the materials, and we were delayed on some of the work because of people testing positive. But we like challenges; we faced those challenges, and it went very well. It's going very well, and it looks absolutely beautiful. We have had a very rainy spring and that, in turn, has slowed things down.

But I’ll tell you what, I will tell you this: We’ve had our facility in northeast Oklahoma for a dozen years, and the best part about Pine Bluff is the employees are incredible. They’re wonderful people to work with. They work hard. They’re loyal, and I’m just amazed at the quality of people in Pine Bluff. We’ve had a great relationship, we continue to, with the Racing Commission. We welcome their participation and we keep transparency to help them feel comfortable. We love working with their staff, and we love working with their board. It’s just been a great experience, to be honest with you.

How important is the Pine Bluff project to the community and to the tribe?

I think it’s hugely important. I think it’s important that we’ve established ourselves in our homeland. I think the community is primed for the entire facility. Everything in Pine Bluff needs to go upward and onward, and I’m just excited that we're a part of that. And I think it's going to just change the whole environment in the Pine Bluff area. That's the best part about it. It's just really going to be good for Pine Bluff; it’s going to be good for the Quapaw Nation. And it's just all good.

What do you think of the newly elected chairman?

I know him. He’s my relative. He’s a smart, capable young man. He's been raised very well. He's just completed law school. He's been around the tribe his whole life. His family is fantastic, and I think he’ll do a good job. We have built a wonderful team for him to pick up the pieces. He doesn’t even have to pick up the pieces; he just has to jump in and be part of the team and just keep rolling the ball forward. And I think he'll do a fantastic job.

Any advice for your successor?

My advice would be to take it one step at a time. Just get to know all the great people. Let them get to know him and introduce themselves, and create a great relationship. The mayor, the judge, the fire chief, everybody is just fantastic in the Pine Bluff community. We've had a great working relationship, and I think the new chairman can step right in and just run with it and just let them get to know him and educate each other on histories and just enjoy it and help everybody uplift the community. 

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to kind of slow down a little. I’ve already had some tribes reach out to me to see if I could help them on some different issues, which I’d be happy to. I’m wanting to spend more time with my kids. I’ve got a cattle farm; I want to work on it and do some more stuff. I just want to enjoy life. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to just focusing on my family and the things that are important to and being supportive of the new administration. Anything I can do to help them, I want to help. I’m more than willing to keep helping and make sure this thing comes true because there's a lot of people that have put a lot of heart and soul into it.

It's a great thing for the Quapaw Nation. It’s a great thing for the people of Jefferson County and Pine Bluff.