Osage Congress approves FY 2020 gaming plan of operations

With the recent announcement of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s proposal to renegotiate the tribal gaming compacts, Osage Nation gaming officials say they have contingency plans in place should Class III gaming be impacted due to pending negotiations.

Gaming officials including Osage Casino CEO Byron Bighorse and Gaming Enterprise Board Chairman Mark Simms met with the ON Congressional Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee on Sept. 3 as the 2019 Tzi-Zho Session started. The committee meeting also took place as the Congress considered action on the 2020 fiscal year annual plan of operations for the Nation’s Gaming Enterprise of seven Osage Casino properties.

“I come bearing good news – we’re making a lot of money, so that’s always a good thing to say out loud,” Bighorse told the committee in opening remarks.

Mark Simms told the committee if improvements are done on the casinos, such as Sand Springs, and if Bartlesville and Pawhuska receive new casinos, the gaming revenue could increase by an estimated $5-$10 million.

The meeting discussion touched on the gaming compact situation and other gaming-related matters in general before the meeting moved into executive session to discuss business proprietary matters as allowed by Osage law.

“One thing that we are definitely, definitely dealing with is the Gov. Stitt approach to negotiating the compacts with the tribes, specifically with the Osage Nation,” Bighorse said. “He put out an article in the Tulsa World before even consulting with anyone including Principal Chief (Geoffrey) Standing Bear, which was very odd in our eyes because that’s not how you really start a negotiation. To this date, there have been no negotiations between the (Nation) and the state regarding the compact.”

“We’ve been advised by our legal counsel, they’re pretty firm in saying that compact will renew in January (2020), that’s kind of the sticking point for Gov. Stitt, he’s saying it expires, we’re saying it renews. So what this means is there’s going to be a big potential for this to end up in court and it could take a while to get resolved,” Bighorse said. “So what we’ve been working on is potential impacts to the Osage Casino, we have contingency plans in place to convert most, if not all, our games to Class II from Class III.”

“Thanks to a smart staff, we’ve been ahead of the curve … Class III gaming in Oklahoma includes table games, so right now we’re talking about what’s going to happen with our employees, we’re going to run through some scenarios, but you can imagine if Class III gaming stops, we’re going to have a situation we’re going to have to address with those employees – it’s about 82 employees right now system-wide … I do want to caution everybody it’s pure speculation at this point, there’s no way to tell you how much it could affect us because nobody really knows … everybody (other tribes with gaming operations) is in the same flux,” Bighorse said.

As for new casino properties at Pawhuska and Bartlesville, Bighorse provided a brief update since the land-into-trust status for both properties is still ongoing and must be completed for gaming to be conducted on those lands purchased by the Nation.

“We have been working on the land-into-trust situation for a number of years, we do believe we are at the finish line,” Bighorse said of the trust applications for new Pawhuska and Bartlesville casino properties. “Right now to go ahead, we’re seeking approval for an architect or engineer of record for both of those properties … get documents in hand, ready to come back at the next opportune time to talk about what it’s going to cost” to build both properties.

For a timeline, Bighorse noted “it’s about a 12- to 18-month process once you start this in order to get the dirt turning to get it operational, that’s the experience we’ve seen just recently with Tulsa (casino/ hotel). The reason we’re asking for both of them is by building both of them concurrently, you will save money on construction costs because a lot of the (subcontractors) can come from Tulsa, or Bartlesville or Ponca City … You’re talking a significant amount of dollars associated with these projects. To me, you can get ahead of the game, you can be shovel-ready when the land comes into trust and then we can put together a construction cost package and come back to this body and say ‘this is what it’s going to cost and this is how we’re going to pay for it’ and then we can move on from there.”

With a proposed concurrent building plan for building both new Pawhuska and Bartlesville casino properties at the same time, Bighorse estimated both will open within a few months of each other. The concurrent building of two casino properties mirrors a similar plan used to build the Ponca City and Skiatook casino and hotel properties, which both opened in December 2013 approximately two weeks apart.

On Sept. 19, the 12-member Congress voted unanimously to approve ONCR 19-21 (sponsored by Congresswoman Alice Goodfox), which is a resolution declaring consent and approval of the annual plan of operations for the casinos.