News Column

Cherokee Nation Businesses Land Deal Criticized

Jan. 7, 2013

Jarrel Wade

A recent Cherokee Nation Businesses purchase of a golf course and nearly 300 acres of land -- reportedly for about $8.5 million -- has been criticized as being a bad deal by some Cherokee officials because the properties were owned by the family of a board member and weren't independently appraised.

Cherokee Nation Businesses board member Bob Berry abstained from the 14-0-1 vote to buy the Cherry Springs Golf Course in Tahlequah, several miles north of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Complex, CNB spokeswoman Amanda Clinton confirmed.

Berry said he had partial ownership of the golf course, and the land has been tied up in an estate for his children.

Berry and other board members wouldn't reveal plans for the land despite talk for several years of building a flagship Cherokee casino closer to home than the tribe's Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa.

"Obviously, they didn't buy the pasture to raise cattle," Berry said. "I don't know what their plans are. But I think it's a heck of a bargain."

Several Cherokee tribal councilors have taken issue with the closed-door approach to buying the land, which included a non-disclosure agreement between the Berry family and the Cherokee Nation.

An emergency tribal council meeting was called at the end of December as CNB officials realized that Cherokee law prevented CNB from making purchases of more than $6 million without council approval.

Instead of gaining approval for the sale at the meeting, councilors opted to raise the $6 million ceiling to $15 million.

The meeting included critical questions from several councilors regarding the land's appraised value, the CNB board's practices on ethics reviews and what led CNB officials to make the purchase.

Cherokee Nation tribal councilor Cara Cowan-Watts was critical of the purchase and requested an executive session before the spending cap was raised.

Shawn Slaton, interim CEO of CNB, refused to answer several questions at the meeting, citing the non-disclosure agreement.

"We determined the asking price was a great price for that piece of property," Slaton said Friday. "We do our own internal reviews on that type of property."

Berry said a deal with another buyer to sell just the 100-acre pasture south of the golf course for $10 million fell through about two years ago.

"They (Berry's children) made a proposal to the Cherokee Nation at a reduced rate," he said.

Berry said $8.5 million was "in the ballpark" of the total deal.

Court records filed on Dec. 28 show the property transaction for the nearly 300 acres including the golf course was $7 million.

The property transaction total is determined because of a listed $10,500 fee that charges $1.50 for each $1,000 spent in a transaction, according to staff members in the Cherokee County Court Clerk's Office.

Slaton said the non-disclosure agreement prevents him from explaining the price and therefore the apparent difference of $1.5 million between what was paid for the entire agreement and what was paid for the land.

Slaton said CNB will begin a feasibility study to evaluate the property for its best use.

"We hope this is a big boon to Tahlequah and Cherokee County -- whatever we do," Slaton said. "It's a little premature because we don't have anything definite."

Slaton said purchasing the property puts the Cherokee Nation "in the heart" of the direction Tahlequah has grown in recent years.

In addition to several hundred more acres of undeveloped property owned by members of the Berry family near the golf course, other Cherokee officials own land near the golf course, according to Cherokee County Assessor records.

Chief Bill John Baker's furniture store, Baker's Furniture, abuts the golf course along U.S. 62, records show.

Another CNB board member, Tommye Sue Wright, and her husband, Scott Wright, own a real estate company that represents hundreds of properties in the Tahlequah area.

The Wrights have about 75 percent of the land they own near the golf course developed and sold, she said.

Their land is west of U.S. 62, and Cherry Springs Golf Course is east of the highway.

"I don't think anything commercial across the highway from a subdivision would enhance a residential neighborhood," Tommye Sue Wright said.

Wright said she voted on the purchase instead of abstaining like Berry because the golf course is already there, and she doesn't believe the purchase would directly impact her land.

Wright and Berry are among a majority of board members appointed by Baker since he took office.

"I believe it was a good investment for the Cherokee Nation Businesses, and it will create more jobs for the Cherokee people," she said. "Would I have bought it (for $8.5 million)? I'm sure I would have."



Source: (c)2013 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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