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Media Articles - 2000s

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7 January 2003
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Arrowhead Lodge bought by Narconon;
Some residents oppose drug treatment center

Daily Oklahoman, 17 May 2000

Saunas are coming to Arrowhead Lodge, but not the kind some area residents would prefer.

An international group with ties to the Church of Scientology is buying the 256-acre resort property and plans to lease it to a Narconon drug and alcohol abuse treatment center, officials said Tuesday.

The nonprofit Association for Better Living and Education will pay the Choctaw Nation about $1.9 million for the resort, said Gary Smith, executive director of the Narconon Chilocco New Life Center in Newkirk.

Arrowhead State Park and the Arrowhead Golf Course will remain under the control of the state Tourism Department, spokesman Ron Stahl said.

Choctaw tribe spokeswoman Judy Allen confirmed the pending resort sale, which is expected to close in a couple of days.

The sale will mark the third time Arrowhead has changed hands since the tourism department gave up on it in 1983.

The Choctaw Nation bought Arrowhead from the federal government in 1985, after the state failed to pay back a loan used to build the Lake Eufaula resort in 1965. The Choctaws announced in 1998 that they were selling the property, where they operated a hotel gaming center.

Initial renovations will cost about $1 million, said Smith, whose 75-bed treatment center plans to move and expand to as many as 300 beds at Arrowhead.

"It was an awesome facility when it was built, but it's pretty run down, so there's quite a bit of renovations to do," he said. "It's going to take a number of months."

Narconon Chilocco uses saunas, vitamins and a special diet as part of its three-month treatment. The plan was developed by the late L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

"I figure, hey, we can go get in the sauna and get sobered out on a Sunday morning," said Arrowhead Estates resident Michael Hall, who gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition opposing Narconon's plans.

Hall said homeowners are concerned about safety and property values.

"This is the old lodge. It's right in the state park area," said Lois Hartman, who lives in Arrowhead Estates, less than two miles from the lodge. "We just didn't feel that was beneficial to the enhancement of our property values."

The state Health Department has granted a certificate of need for Narconon to move from Newkirk to Arrowhead, so it appears residents have lost the fight, residents said.

Other homeowners see potential benefits, including the economic infusion.

Narconon plans to bring a staff of 60 and a payroll of $1 million to Arrowhead. It also will hire about 10 local residents for security, maintenance and housekeeping jobs, Smith said.

"To be honest, it's pretty mixed," Arrowhead Estates trustee Bud Shaw said of residents' feelings.

"Some of us feel like it's probably better than the state maybe turning it into a prison someday."

Similar fears were expressed in a two-year fight before Narconon opened in Newkirk in 1990. Ten years later, Shaw said he checked with people in Newkirk, including the sheriff's office, about the center's reputation.

"It sounds like they're honest, and their security is good," Shaw said.

In a six-page letter mailed to almost 1,000 Arrowhead Estates, Canadian and Crowder residents, Smith explained the plans and tried to quell residents' concerns.

"The Narconon Program in Oklahoma has been operating a successful residential drug rehabilitation program in this state for nearly 10 years," Smith wrote. "Narconon enjoys a very positive working relationship with many local vendors and last year graduated 200 people from its treatment program."

However, Narconon's departure from Newkirk's old Chilocco Indian School can't come soon enough for Wanda Stone, chairman of the Kaw Nation, one of five north-central Oklahoma tribes that lease the grounds to the group.

Stone said Narconon never presented accurate figures to any of the five tribes that made up the Chilocco Development Authority. It refused to allow tribes to look at figures that might show how many people were being treated at Narconon and what they were paying.

Narconon promised the 25-year lease, signed in 1990, would generate $16 million to the five tribes, the Kaw, Ponca, Otoe-Missouria, Tonkawa and Pawnee tribes. The five tribes received less than $1 million from Narconon during its lease.

Relations between the tribes and Narconon deteriorated over the years. Five years ago, the intertribal group turned over management details to the Pawnee agency of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A mediator was brought in three years ago to renegotiate the original lease, Stone said. A new contract was signed two months ago that requires Narconon to leave the Chilocco school within three years. It called for the tribes to forcibly remove Narconon staff if they remained there longer than three years.

"We wanted them out of there," Stone said. "That was the only way we could do it was through mediation. We just talk to them through a mediator."

Narconon had permission to treat 125 clients, but its usual occupancy was less than 40, neighbors said. By this time, it was supposed to have expanded the school to a 1,000-bed facility and was to have renovated the original buildings, Stone said. It never did.

Garry Bilger, Newkirk's mayor when Narconon moved into the old school, was one of the group's biggest critics. He remains skeptical about what kind of activities occurred at the complex.

After the complex opened, it was common for residents to wander into town looking for help to get back home or in touch with their families, Bilger said. In recent years, mostly Narconon staff from around the world appeared to be staying at the complex.

Bilger was a vocal critic of Narconon getting state approval. He said he and his family were harassed by people belonging to Narconon.

"I hate to see anybody taken advantage of," Bilger said. "I feel that that's their goal."