John Berrey, a Quapaw Tribe chief and chairman of Downstream Media Group, which is planning to build Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, hosted a meeting at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Thursday to provide an update, collect contact information from local contractors and introduce them to key players of the planning and operating processes.
If a gaming license is granted by the Arkansas Racing Commission, Berrey said he plans to start moving dirt as soon as possible.
He said some work at the casino site, which is located across from the Social Security Administration Building at the corner of the Martha Mitchell Expressway and US 79/63, is already underway. Berrey said as of now, they are looking at an estimate of $320 million in hard costs, with $100 million being allocated to materials, $120 million in construction costs and $100 million on fixtures, furniture and equipment.
He said they are currently in what he described as the programming phase.
“Programming is a big word for taking all the stuff we want and jamming it into a building that looks good and figuring out how much it cost, because I have to borrow this money,” Berrey said. “Twelve years ago, you (could) get 10 times your income, but now it’s three or four times, so I’m limited by our feasibility study to what I can borrow. We’ve been working for the last two weeks, and we want a lot of stuff, but we don’t want to pay a whole lot for it.”
Berrey said he is projecting to have a defined number within a week to 10 days on the costs of the dirt package, the infrastructure, along with mechanical, electrical and plumbing work.
“Once we get those numbers within the budget, we start chopping it up,” Berrey said. “We’ll put those numbers on the street to verify our thought process, and then we’ll start taking bids.”
During the meeting, local construction contractors were asked to sign in, providing their name, company, telephone number and email address. Berrey said Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington has made it clear that he must give local contractors favor in the bidding process and is holding him accountable in making sure everyone who attended the meeting is called.
He said it will cost him less in mobilization costs to use local equipment and local people. He said one of their requirements of the subcontractors is to hire local people to fill their workforce.
“The reason we’re doing this is there’s a lot of small guys in this town that want to work … they have the capability to work, but they don’t have the bonding capacity,” Berrey said. “They don’t have some of the licensing or some other requirements, so our goal is to take some of those guys and pair them with bigger guys or medium-sized guys so they can become a part of the project.”
He said they are still fine-tuning the utilities and hope approach the utility companies and request that they put up a capital investment. Downstream will pay it off in its monthly bill to avoid compromising the infrastructure of the City of Pine Bluff, Berrey said.
Berrey also said the sooner he gets the gaming license in his hands, the sooner he can start spending money, so Washington, the county judge and the Quorum Court will have money coming in instead of “just spreading what thin money they have.”
He said the estimated revenue projections for the city and state is $35 million dollars in five years in gaming taxes.
“Even though the county has got some struggles now, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train, it’s opportunity,” Berrey said.
Berrey said he was able to build Downstream Casino and Resort in Oklahoma in 10 months and 26 days. He said the 10-month completion included the shell, the skin on the casino, opening of the restaurants and gaming areas. He said after opening the casino, it took six months to complete the hotel. He hopes to have the same success with Saracen Casino and Resort in Pine Bluff.
“We’ll build the structure, put the skin on it … we’ll focus on opening the casino so I can start generating income to help pay for finishing up the hotel and convention space. So, let’s say we get our license mid-April, I’m thinking I’d like to see it open by Valentine’s Day 2020.”
Aside from granting favor to local contractors, Berrey said he plan is to hire a diverse staff and maintain a diverse facility. He outlined the theme of the casino and resort as being intentional in order to honor the history and culture of not only Quapaw Indians, but also African Americans.
He said the theme of the casino and resort will be historic Quapaw and will also highlight the African American experience. The music theme will be delta blues.
“Even though people don’t know it, we have a lot in common,” Berrey said. “The Quapaw people were stolen and shipped to the Caribbean in droves as slaves. In the south, a lot of Indians had burial grounds, and when people came in and build plantations, they technically buried their slaves where the Indians were buried. There are a lot of places on our land by the port that’s got a mound of Quapaw’s buried with slaves on top of them. There’s a lot more to us than you would imagine, and I would imagine a lot of black, African American, people of color in this community have Native American blood in them, and we have that in common.”
Berrey said Saracen Casino and Resort will also celebrate the history of agriculture in the delta as well. He said in doing that, he wants to highlight the Caucasian experience in agriculture.
“It’s a rich history in the delta,” Berrey said. “We’re not leaving out that population. That will be celebrated in the history of the agriculture in this area where a lot of white people and black people came together to produce crops that made Pine Bluff at one time one of the greatest places in America for the port and the railroad, so we don’t want to forget that.”
At the end of the meeting, Berrey opened the floor for questions. Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Alfred Carroll said: “All of the good things that you are talking about … are there going to be any memorandums of understanding that are going to be developed and put forward so that we’ll know exactly what you’re saying now is what you’re going to be saying six months from now as it relates to uplifting the community?”
Berrey said he cannot sign a memorandum of understanding if it crosses the lines of ethics and quid pro quo.
“Part of this is trust. We picked Pine Bluff and we changed the (state) constitution,” Berrey said, referring to the 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment to approve casino gambling in Arkansas.
“We took the risk. We’re spending $350 million bucks here, and it’s not going to do me any good to not to fulfill my promises. I can’t make money here off retirement checks, entitlement checks. I wouldn’t be building what you’re seeing here. My memorandum of understanding for the community is my investment in the community. I’m risking $350 million dollars, I’m creating jobs, and I gave my word to the judge and the mayor that we are going to be diverse and we’re going to have meetings like this to find people who get lift behind when people are looking for diversity.”