Icon (Close Menu)


Quapaw Casino-Growth Plans Generate Opposition in Kansas

8 min read

The action at the $350 million Downstream Casino Resort is hotter than usual, even for a Saturday night. Helping stir the Aug. 15 crowd is the preconcert buzz before two groups that had their heydays in the 1970s hit the stage.

As showtime approaches for the Village People to open for KC and the Sunshine Band, more and more ticketholders begin the short stroll from Downstream’s hotel, casino and restaurants to its outdoor entertainment venue.

As concertgoers cross north into Kansas, other patrons are headed south from the parking lot to check in, gamble and dine in Oklahoma. Not far to the east, an RV park and convenience store in Missouri provide neighboring waypoints for visitors and travelers.

The tri-state footprint of the Quapaw tribe’s commercial holdings near Interstate 44 creates an unusual geographic and political setting.

Quapaw ownership of 160 acres near the Little Rock Port has generated political concerns that the tribe plans to develop a casino in Arkansas, something the Quapaw deny unambiguously.

But opposition in Arkansas is a mere shadow of the pushback the Quapaw are getting from Kansas. The success of Downstream and plans for expansion suggests that the Quapaw know how to run a casino — an expertise that might well worry Arkansas’ existing gambling venues.

Diplomatic relations with Kansas have been strained since the tribe unveiled its plans for the Downstream development more than eight years ago. Opposition forces in Kansas unsuccessfully tried to thwart or at least delay the Oklahoma project in federal court.

The bone of contention these days is the Quapaw’s plan to expand its casino into Kansas, where dice games such as craps and wheel games such as roulette are legal. These popular Las Vegas-style table games currently aren’t legal for tribal gaming under Oklahoma law.

In this legal go-around, the state of Kansas is suing the Quapaw and the federal government to prevent the expansion.

“That wasn’t very neighborly,” said Sean Harrison, spokesman for the Quapaw tribe.

The Kansas lawsuit claims the governor of a state has the power to approve or veto gambling on tribal lands acquired after the Indian Gaming Act was enacted on Oct. 17, 1988.

Kansas acreage purchased by the tribe since then was once part of the Quapaw’s original land holdings granted under treaty by the federal government when the tribe was relocated from Arkansas.

As such, the property qualified to be put into trust and held by the United States for the benefit of the Quapaw. That arrangement creates tribal land, a sovereign jurisdiction free of state and local taxation largely governed by the Quapaw.

Kansas is trying to undo that sovereign situation, which allows the Quapaw to build without state approval.

However, under federal law, a compact between state and tribe is required before casino gambling can occur. The compact spells out the regulatory and financial terms, including taxes and fees collected by the state on gambling revenue.

Federal law requires the arrangement to be negotiated in good faith, which presents an awkward situation for the Quapaw.

Kansas has been in the casino business since the passage of a 2007 law that permits the government to own four casinos in each quadrant of the state. Despite the political situation, the Quapaw hope to move forward with their $15 million expansion into Kansas.

The 40,000-SF project would add 25 jobs to Downstream’s current tally of about 1,100. In addition to new gambling options, the space will house a cigar lounge and night club.

“Gov. Sam Brownback and his crew have tried to make us out to be the bad guys,” said John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Indians. “Our hope is to establish the Kansas expansion of the casino during the next three or four years.”

Kansas officials flew into a tizzy earlier this year when they thought the Quapaw had started construction of the casino expansion despite the ongoing litigation. Turns out, workers were merely replacing the carpet in Downstream’s current casino.

If the proposed Kansas expansion doesn’t occur during the next five years, it might happen in Oklahoma.

The current compact in Oklahoma expires Jan. 1, 2020. Adding craps and roulette to the gambling menu allowed at tribal casinos will be a hot proposal.

“There will be some serious lobbying going on to allow dice and wheels,” said the Quapaw’s Sean Harrison.

The tribe also owns Quapaw Casino, a 22-mile drive to the southwest from Downstream. The more modest forerunner features a 27,000-SF gaming floor with 500 electronic slot machines and eight tables for blackjack and poker.

While Quapaw Casino attracts hundreds to its 24-7 operations daily, Downstream measures its attendance in the thousands.

The headcount of guests at Downstream on Aug. 15 was 11,576. About 2,400 attended the evening concert.

‘It Was a Stampede’

Nothing has rivaled the official public opening of the Downstream casino on July 5, 2008. When the doors opened that evening, 10,000 poured into a gaming area designed to handle 6,000 comfortably.

“It was a stampede,” Harrison said. By midnight, 30,000 had come to see the new game in town.

Contributing to the pandemonium was an unscheduled test of the casino’s $18 million ventilation system.

Planning for the celebratory fireworks display didn’t take into account the prevailing winds. The southwesterly air currents pushed the smoke from the pyrotechnics over the casino.

The building’s monster air circulation system sucked in some of the smoke and filled the casino with it. Security went scrambling in search of a fire that wasn’t, and guests wondered what was going on.

Within a few minutes, casino visibility cleared as fresh air was cycled in and smoky air was pulled out. The system, designed to keep the casino as smoke-free as technologically possible while taking on cigarette smoke, proved its mettle.

An Arkansas Homecoming

The operational success of Downstream and the Quapaw’s ability to prevail through legal and political adversity preceded the tribe’s return to Arkansas as landowners in October 2012.

Though small in number, the Quapaw rank among the five largest tribes in terms of Oklahoma gambling ventures based on taxes paid to the state.

The roster of its tribal members stands at about 4,800. Of that headcount, nearly 2,000 live in Oklahoma.

About 200 Quapaw members reside in Arkansas, the tribe’s ancestral homeland for years until politics and treaties relocated the Quapaw westward amid murky land considerations. The tribe’s original name meant, roughly translated, “downstream people.”

Suspicion still lingers in some quarters after the Quapaw bought land near the Little Rock Port, property with historic ties to their last Arkansas enclave from 182 years ago.

The distrust of the tribe’s motivation for returning to Arkansas is ironic given the long history of interracial contracts and real estate dealings. The possibility of the Quapaw establishing a federal trust on their 160 acres as a first step to developing a casino led to opposition from some Arkansas political leaders.

“When people have other people whispering in their ear, that makes it hard to listen,” said Berrey, the Quapaw chairman and a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “We declared the property sacred. We don’t want to build a casino there.”

The farmland is home to graves of Quapaw who lived there before Arkansas was a state and slaves who worked the ground when it was part of the Thibault Plantation.

Earthenware uncovered during the Thibault ownership is on display at Downstream along with other tribal artifacts.

Berrey’s vision for the tillable non-historic portion of the property is to continue farming the land. This year’s crop of purple hull peas and okra is bound for local charities.

In Oklahoma, the tribe’s agrarian bent includes the Quapaw Cattle Co., which runs 400 head of Black Angus that supplies steak to the dining menu at Downstream.

Four greenhouses on the Kansas side of the tribe’s property supply flora to help support demand for greenery at the resort. Hives near the greenhouses produce honey used in Downstream kitchens.

Although bacon-wrapped buffalo tenderloin is a featured dish at the Red Oak Steakhouse, the tribe’s herd of 75 bison at Downstream isn’t the source.

The opposition to the Quapaw’s ongoing paperwork process to transfer the Arkansas land into federal trust ­doesn’t faze Berrey.

“Once again, the white man is telling us what’s good for the Quapaw,” he said.

Downstream Casino Resort

  • Groundbreaking ceremony held on July 31, 2007.
  • The 70,000-SF casino opened on July 5, 2008, touted as the fastest-built casino of its size and scope.
  • The adjoining 12-story, 222-room hotel opened Nov. 22, 2008.
  • Construction cost: $301 million.
  • The six-story, 152-room Kappa Tower opened on Dec. 20, 2012.
  • The $50 million hotel expansion included the Neé Spa, Lover’s Leap Bar & Lounge and Ma-Ko-Sha` coffee shop and bakery.
  • Total staff: 1,100

On the Drawing Board

A 40,000-SF expansion onto tribal land in Kansas, where dice and roulette gambling are legal. The project also would house 162 electronic machines, a cigar lounge and nightclub.

  • Projected cost: $15 million
  • Staff additions: 25

Approved by the federal government in December 2014, the project is on hold as the state of Kansas wages a legal battle with the Quapaw tribe and federal government to stop it.

Top Tribal Gaming Payouts To State of Oklahoma

Chickasaw $42,303,348
Choctaw $19,698,064
Cherokee $13,637,467
Creek $9,070,056
Quapaw $5,802,368
Osage $5,780,946

*July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014.

Under the state-tribal gaming compact, Oklahoma tribes pay monthly exclusivity fees based on a sliding scale for Las Vegas-style electronic games. For the first $10 million in revenue, tribes pay 4 percent to the state; for the next $10 million, the payment is 5 percent; and for revenues more than $20 million, the payment is 6 percent. Tribes pay 10 percent of the monthly net win from table games such as poker and blackjack.

The Oklahoma Gaming Compliance Unit Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2014 noted that a “4 percent downturn in exclusivity fee revenues occurred despite an overall increase in the number of Class III games, suggesting possible market saturation. An increase in Class II machines may have also played a part in the revenue decline.”

Class II gaming includes bingo; when played in the same location as bingo — pull tabs, lotto, punch boards, tip jars, instant bingo, other games similar to bingo.

Under Oklahoma State-Tribal gaming compacts, Class III gaming allows for all Las Vegas-style gambling except for crowd-drawing dice throws at the craps table and spins of the roulette wheel.

Send this to a friend