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story.lead_photo.caption Chairman John L. Berrey (left) and Quapaw Nation member Steve Pratt visit Tuesday before a celebration on the opening of the Saracen Q Store Casino Annex in Pine Bluff. - Photo by Dale Ellis

PINE BLUFF -- When Arkansas voters approved an amendment that authorized four casinos in the state, the Quapaw Nation fixed its sights on Pine Bluff for one reason: history.

"The Quapaw have been in Arkansas since the early 1500s," said John L. Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation. "We met Hernando de Soto in 1524 in Osceola. The tribe had a long relationship with the French and the Spanish centered around the Arkansas Post."

The Saracen Q Store and Casino Annex, with a 15,000-square-foot gambling floor and 300 slot machines, is entering its first full week of operation.

On Tuesday, officials with the Quapaw Nation and Downstream Development Authority celebrated completion of the first phase of construction on what will eventually be a full-scale casino resort development.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3ux8qlM_HE]

The $350 million Saracen Casino Resort, once completed, will have an 80,000-square foot gambling floor, 2,000 slot machines and 50 gambling tables; a 300-room hotel with conference and banquet centers, an entertainment venue, and several restaurants, in addition to a safety/fire and EMS facility, a day care and child learning center.

It is set for completion next summer, Berrey said.

In the meantime, the Saracen Q Store and Casino Annex is open to give patrons a taste of what the main resort will offer.

According to casino officials, more than 200 people are employed at the Q Store and Annex, 70% of whom are black 72% of whom are female, and 95% of whom are residents of Pine Bluff. Once Saracen Casino Resort is completed, officials said, more than 1,100 permanent jobs will be created in the combined casino, resort, Q store, and annex.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at arkansasonline.com/casinos]

Amendment 100, which passed in the November 2018 general election, authorized four casinos to be build in Arkansas.

Two casinos were authorized at the state's racetracks -- Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, and the dog-racing facility, Southland, in West Memphis. For several years, both places offered "electronic games of skill," according to a definition arrived at by the General Assembly.

The amendment authorized casino operations at two additional locations -- in Pope County and Jefferson County. Proposals for casinos in Pope County have been marred by controversy since the amendment was passed. By comparison, the path to a new casino in Pine Bluff has been smooth from the outset, with the Quapaw Nation the only serious contender for the casino license in Jefferson County.

Quapaw Nation wanted to be in Pine Bluff and nowhere else in the state.

According to the history of the Quapaw Nation, the Quapaw, or "Downstream People," were also called the "Akansa ," meaning "people of the south wind" by Algonquian-speaking Americans Indians of the Ohio Valley. French explorers who encountered the tribe called the people as well as this region by that name. The word for the people and area, Akansa, became Arkansas over time.

"The Quapaw are part of the Sioux family. We are related by dialect and culture," Berrey said. "The Quapaw split from this larger tribe and moved down the Mississippi River into Arkansas."

The Saracen Casino Resort's namesake is rooted in Quapaw history, as well as the history of Pine Bluff. Saracen (also spelled Sarasin), was once chief of the Quapaw tribe and was said to have rescued a Spanish commander and his two children from a Chickasaw raiding party. He was awarded a presidential medal by the first territorial governor, James Miller, according to Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

The Quapaw lived in villages near the junction of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers -- three of which were in Pine Bluff -- and while they ceded their land in 1824 and were forced to move several times, Saracen and others returned to Jefferson County around 1830. He died there, and while the exact date of his death is unknown, he was buried in Pine Bluff. Lake Saracen and Saracen Landing are both named for the chief as a tribute to the historical roots of the Quapaws in Pine Bluff.

The Quapaw nation is no longer led by a hereditary chief, but is instead governed by an elected chairman. Currently, Berrey leads the Quapaw nation and serves as chairman of the Downstream Development Authority, which has developed a number of enterprises, including the soon-to-open Saracen Casino Resort. While the casinos generate income for the tribe, Berrey said, they also serve another important purpose: investing in the surrounding communities.

Berrey said Quapaw investments in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County began more than six months ago and have taken many shapes.

"Our investment in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County represents our desire to return to the community to positively impact its well-being," Berrey said. "Any corporation can build. Our goal as Quapaw is to become a 'resident,' to contribute to the community in a meaningful way and to partner with community leaders to improve the lives of the residents."

Gerald Robinson, county judge of Jefferson County, said the opening of the casino annex is the beginning of what he believes is a rebirth of Jefferson County and Pine Bluff.

"History has a way of repeating itself. We were once a thriving metropolis where we were the second-largest county in the state of Arkansas," Robinson said. "Then we fell to number 10 or 11. But we are on our way back because so many people believe and so many people did not give up."

Photo by Dale Ellis
People try their luck Tuesday on slot machines at the newly opened Saracen Q Store and Casino Annex in Pine Bluff.

Metro on 10/02/2019

Print Headline: Quapaw officially open annex, offering taste of casino to come

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