Joseph Byrd and Guy Barker lead the government of the Quapaw Nation, which owns and operates Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.
Byrd succeeded John Berrey, longtime chairman of the Business Committee of the Quapaw Nation, in August. With almost 20 years of experience in finance, Byrd’s career in the gaming industry began at Downstream Casino Resort in Quapaw, Oklahoma, and later at Cherokee Nation Entertainment. He earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico in 2017 and has a master’s degree in Indian law from the University of Tulsa College of Law.
Barker has been secretary-treasurer of the Business Committee since August. He worked as a petroleum engineer before earning a law degree from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 2020.
Has the Saracen Casino met your business expectations as far as COVID-19 would allow? Have you adjusted your business plan permanently or are things just delayed?
Like every industry, COVID has impacted gaming, so it goes without saying the pandemic has affected our bottom line. But we are pleased with where we are, especially given the strong and positive revenue and excitement from the community. We are happy to be what we call “safely busy” and are eagerly awaiting a post-COVID atmosphere.
The supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic continue to be an issue. There are places in Saracen that are still awaiting furniture or finishes. For example, supply chain disruptions and seating limitations have significantly delayed fully opening Red Oak Steakhouse as planned. But with the continued rollout of vaccines, we are hopeful we’ll see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel soon.
When will the hotel be completed? What’s the status of the dispute over the architectural design?
The hotel timeline is subject to the constructs of our financing and COVID. When our predecessors entered into those agreements, they bound our hands somewhat on timelines. A property of this scale needs a hotel to truly bloom, and it is something we are actively planning for daily. But costs of steel, concrete and other building materials that have dramatically increased due to COVID are a factor as well. A specific date would be premature, but we look forward to having news soon.
As far as our litigation dispute over the architectural designs goes, the court has issued some discovery orders. Still, we are actively pushing this matter to resolution and hope to have it behind us soon.
Does the Quapaw Nation have a position on the casino proposed for Pope County, Arkansas? How much of your market area would it overlap?
In Oklahoma, we compete with dozens of casinos, many within the same county as our Downstream and Quapaw Casino properties. So we are accustomed to a market where the consumer has options. When Arkansas voters passed Issue 4 in 2018, they did so knowing their votes would expand gaming at Oaklawn and Southland and issue licenses for two new casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties. Voters were intentional about wanting economic development in those areas, and we’ve delivered on our promise of creating jobs in Jefferson County while the proposed casino in Pope County is still mired in litigation.
That being said, we believe our Pine Bluff property holds several advantages over other venues. The most obvious is time — Saracen is 40 minutes from downtown Little Rock, a straight shot down Interstate 530. When you hit Exit 46 you are at our front door.
The Quapaw Nation is a minority business owner in a majority-minority city. Do you feel any special obligation to reach out to minority-owned vendors or contractors?
We are proud our team is made up primarily of Jefferson County residents. Again, voters asked for economic development and jobs in Jefferson County, and we’ve pledged to fulfill that mission. Our employees are majority-minority, and we employ more women than men. Being a part of Pine Bluff means looking first to Pine Bluff for vendors, which often means utilizing minority-owned firms. We only look beyond Pine Bluff when necessary.
What does the Quapaw Nation do with the profits from its gaming operations?
Profits from our gaming properties are utilized in several ways. A portion is reinvested into our operations to maintain the highest quality guest and player experience and to reward our most loyal guests. As a tribal nation, our gaming operations also fund a variety of social services for our citizens, such as higher education, housing, health care, utility expenses, etc.
Additionally, gaming is only one of our entrepreneurial endeavors, as we always have our eyes set on the future and diversification. Our tribe may be somewhat small in population, but we have a reputation for being rather industrious for our size. In addition to gaming, we own and operate many other businesses, such as the USDA’s only certified tribal meat processing plant, land remediation contracts with the EPA, gas stations, cattle and bison operations, a coffee roasting plant, and so on.
The audit you commissioned after your election found several questionable expenses in Arkansas, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the Razorback Foundation. Do you anticipate trying to claw back any of that?
The state of Arkansas and its flagship university are valued partners of the Quapaw Nation. That was true prior to the initial findings of this audit, and it remains true as the state is the site of our original homelands. It is important however, that all charitable giving and community relations be conducted ethically and aboveboard with the proper internal control standards in place. That simply was not the case before, as some contributions even appear to have been attributed to former Chairman Berrey personally, rather than to the Quapaw Nation or its affiliated enterprises. But we do not intend to seek the return of any funds.