Casino Hits Jackpot Cherokee Lures Crowds, New wevelopment
By Jon Goldberg
July 11, 2000
CHEROKEE — The machines beep and buzz as fake lightning bolts crackle above flashing white, pink and yellow lights.
Players pump their fists at the clanging of raining quarters. Others roll their heads back and rub their eyes at a bad-luck streak.
It’s 2:15p.m. Tuesday inside Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and the place is mobbed.
“You know,” joked casino spokeswoman Marsha Cameron, “I think this place just might work.”
After decades as a modest tourist outpost hawking Native American culture and kitsch to Great Smoky Mountain visitors, the Eastern Band of Cherokee reservation has hit the tourism jackpot. The $93million casino has quickly become the Carolinas’ most popular private attraction, surpassing even Carowinds with 3.2million visitors last year.
The tribe soon plans to raise the stakes.
Less than three years after opening the casino, the Cherokees already have submitted a request to Gov. Jim Hunt to double the size of the gambling space, which at 60,000 square feet is the size of an average grocery store. It also plans to erect Western North Carolina’s tallest hotel next year.
The casino’s success has triggered a public works bonanza for the tribe, which owns the casino and pays Harrah’s Entertainment to run it. New hotels, restaurants and other businesses also have flocked to town.
Though some groups worry the casino spreads gambling’s evils to North Carolina – particularly after the video poker ban in South Carolina – most Cherokee residents seem glad to have it.
“For so long, this tribe has been economically depressed and deprived,” said Carroll Crowe, vice chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. “We’ve been way behind. We’re just starting to catch up a little bit.”
A new deal for Cherokee
Chief Lightfoot sits on a stool outside the Tourist Trap, a shop on the town’s main drag.When visitors approach, his dark and wrinkled Cherokee face smiles below his red Native American headdress.
They snap a photo. He pockets $4.
The chief, also known as Samson Lossiah, waves as the tourists stroll to the nearby collection of weathered wooden shops with huge tepees on their roofs. They sell moccasins, spears and anything else that screams “Indian.”
Chief Lightfoot is old Cherokee, content to make a few bucks off the occasional tourist.
A few blocks to the east, new Cherokee blazes in neon. The casino displays no arrowheads, no pictures of Indian chiefs or anything else that pays homage to its Native American surroundings. Instead, it is nonstop dinging and ringing, cherries and sevens spinning, flashy lights swirling amid a cigarette haze.
The casino’s nearly 2,500 gaming machines – mostly variations on slot machines and video poker and blackjack – three restaurants, day-care center, gift shop and 2,000-space parking lot are almost always packed. So is the auditorium, when concerts, boxing and other events are scheduled.
“It’s pure entertainment, that’s all it is,” said visitor Erlindo Guillermo of Forest City. “Plus, it’s a lot closer than Atlantic City.”
New Cherokee is revolutionizing old Cherokee.
After paying Harrah’s an undisclosed sum to run the place, the casino’s profits are split evenly between the tribal government and the 12,000 registered Eastern Cherokee members. The residents collect twice-a-year checks much like stockholders do when a company dishes out dividends.
Though the casino doesn’t release its revenues – by law, it doesn’t have to – one resident said her per-capita check surged from $595 in 1997 to $2,000 for just the first six months of this year.
That’s a significant sum for many on the 56,500-acre reservation, which for decades has lagged most of the rest of North Carolina in nearly every social and economic statistic.
Cherokee’s $15,956 median household income in 1990 was two-thirds of the state average in 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. About a fourth of the adults lived below the poverty line that year.
Though newer statistics aren’t available, signs indicate better days are on the way.
An employee survey Harrah’s conducted last year found that nearly half of the casino’s 1,500 employees bought new cars in 1999. More than 40percent of the casino’s workers live on the reservation.
Nearly three-fourths of the workers also indicated they had obtained better health care since signing on at the casino.
Meanwhile, the tribal government is cashing in on its reversal of fortune:
The tribe has hired 34 police officers and five firefighters and bought three garbage trucks since the opening. Before the casino, the tribe employed five police officers.
A former temporary casino building was renovated and turned into the Cherokee Youth Center, which serves about 600 kids with activities such as dance and music classes.
A dialysis center opened in August 1999. The center can serve 16 patients, with plans to expand to 21.
A new computer system is being developed to link all tribal programs with e-mail and an intranet.
Also, about 25 acres were purchased for a new park; the Tribal Fish and Game Program moved into a new building; the Cherokee County community building and a senior citizens center expanded; and a new library and recreation department are under construction.
Other planned improvements include paving the driveways of every home, building a new visitors center and providing far more assistance for constructing houses for the elderly and handicapped.
Major private investment has followed the casino as well. In the past two years Cherokee has scored its first chain grocery store – a Food Lion – and a swath of new hotels, restaurants and convenience stores. Existing businesses say their cash registers are busier, too.
“Our people’s standard of living has gone way up,” said Bob Bradley, owner of One Feather Fly & Tackle in Cherokee. “People have been able to buy washers and dryers and cars. They’ve put new roofs on their homes. We’ve been able to buy more Christmas gifts than ever before.”
Major expansion in the cards?
The casino has had to overcome a few tough hands in the past three years.
In December, 13 Harrah’s employees were charged with embezzling more than $187,000 from the business. Eleven of them pleaded guilty to the charges in March. Prosecutors said it was the largest embezzlement case in U.S. gaming history.
The casino also doesn’t offer two amenities found in most other casinos: drinking and dealers. A dry community, most Cherokee residents repeatedly have fought attempts to bring alcohol to the reservation and casino.
And as part of its pact with state government, the tribe offers only video gaming. That bothers some casino patrons and discourages others from driving there altogether.
“I prefer live dealers,” said casino patron Brad Stone of Greenville, Ohio, “but the machines treated me all right today.”
One hurdle casino boosters haven’t encountered much is opposition within the community. The Haywood Baptist Association, which represents about 60 churches in Western North Carolina, fought the idea at the outset, but most of the adversaries have quieted.
The conservative Christian Coalition has asked gubernatorial candidates to sign a pledge promising to stop the spread of gambling in North Carolina.
Cherokee leaders, meanwhile, hope the industry keeps booming, and they expect video poker’s folding in South Carolina to minimally boost their business.
In a move to bolster the customer base, the tribe breaks ground this month on a 15-story, 250-room hotel and conference center that should open next to the casino in fall 2002. The 30,000-square-foot conference center would try to push Cherokee into the top rung of convention destinations in North Carolina.
Gov. Hunt also is mulling whether to allow the gaming space to double to 120,000 square feet, a move that also would require federal approval. Hunt’s spokesman said he has not set a timetable on a decision.
The N.C. General Assembly’s proposed video poker ban would not apply to the reservation.
The Cherokees and other tribes operate under a 1988 federal law that allows gaming on Indian lands.
Sim DeLapp, chairman of the N.C. Christian Coalition, said he fears Cherokee’s financial success could spawn more gambling across the state – in the form of video poker or a lottery.
“I just cannot believe the people of North Carolina, once they realize this industry is at our front door, will not rise to inhibit its growth,” DeLapp said. “It’s a cancer that’s moving into the state.”
Theda Holbrook disagrees.
Shivering and clutching a cup of coffee, she huddled in line outside the casino for five hours on opening day in 1997.
The crowds have thinned since the first day, but Holbrook still finds herself among plenty of other players during her occasional weekday visits.
“There’s a lot of noise and lights. It’s almost like a carnival atmosphere,” said Holbrook, an assistant office manager at a Crossville, Tenn., nudist camp. “It’s a good getaway.”
By the numbers
4: Hotels built in Cherokee since the casino opened.
15: Stories in a new hotel opening beside the casino next year.
48.5: Percentage of casino employees who reported buying a new car in 1999.
2,460: Gaming machines inside the casino.
1.9million: Casino visitors from the Carolinas in 1999.
3.2million: Total visitors in 1999.