Ahead of Casino Opening, New Quapaw Leader Goes Quiet

Ahead of Casino Opening, New Quapaw Leader Goes Quiet
Chairman Joseph Byrd of the Quapaw Nation Business Committee

“You know, silence is unnerving; it really is,” former Quapaw Nation Business Chairman John Berrey said last week as his successor to the Oklahoma tribe’s billion-dollar casino and agriculture operation had nothing to say on its future — including a $350 million gambling resort project going up in Pine Bluff.

Joseph Byrd, who defeated Berrey in a July vote of fewer than 900 tribe members, has not responded to repeated requests for comment. And he’s been equally silent with local and state officials on how plans for an Oct. 1 grand opening are proceeding for the 80,000-SF Saracen Casino Resort gaming floor.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and the Arkansas State Racing Commission had not heard from him or his representatives as of Thursday.

Berrey, who built two northeast Oklahoma casinos and guided development at Saracen over 18 years as business chairman, said the transition has been atypical even in an arcane business world where a leadership of a billion-dollar enterprise can hinge on a hundred or so tribal votes.

“I’ve reached out to [Byrd] a dozen times, but there’s been no response,” Berrey said.

Berry described Byrd, a law school graduate and a former casino employee of both the Quapaw and Cherokee Nation gambling operations, as a bright young man in his 30s. But after campaigning on the need for new blood in tribal leadership, Byrd has offered “zero communication,” Berrey said.

“They haven’t really communicated with the employees in Pine Bluff. People that are near and dear to me seem to be losing their jobs because of their association with me. And you know we have created a billion dollars’ worth of assets for the tribe over the last 18 years.”

State spokesman Scott Hardin confirmed Thursday that the new tribal administration has not been in contact with the Racing Commission, but he said the state remains in contact with Carlton Saffra, the Saracen project manager.

Saffra told Whispers he’d leave it to the new leadership to comment, but Hardin said the commission expects the Oct. 1 main casino opening to stand.

“Carlton is doing everything he can, but I don’t know the answer to who will be running the casino operationally,” Berrey said. “I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s a reality.”

No Word to Mayor

Washington said she’s also not sure who will be running Saracen, noting that the city has been meeting with Saffra and Quapaw Director of Construction Chris Roper.

“So who will take over once Joseph Byrd takes full control?” the mayor asked herself before answering. “We’re not sure just yet, and they’re not sure either. People here say they’ll continue doing what they have been doing unless someone tells them otherwise.”

One tribal source said that Byrd and his new leadership team have been “consumed in adjusting to the many new things on their plates, and they have not had time to think about media inquiries.”

Jake Nabholz, South region president of Nabholz Construction in Conway, said in an email that his team was “in the process of getting to know the new leadership of the Quapaw Nation” but had no insight on what the change might mean for the Saracen project’s construction.

Nabholz and Suffolk Construction of Dallas are the main contractors on the casino resort and hotel project, which has a construction value of $215 million (See Pine Bluff Gets a Sprucing Up). “We have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of such a meaningful project for the Pine Bluff area and look forward to continuing our relationship with the Quapaw Nation,” Nabholz said.

Berrey, a University of Arkansas journalism graduate on the cusp of turning 62, plans to spend time with his college-age children, get some work done on his Oklahoma cattle farm and continue a longtime business of building affordable homes.

“I’ve been doing some work to help other tribes, but I’m also just trying to enjoy life and slow down a little bit, and to communicate some with the other people who aren’t hearing anything right now.”