Been to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino? Even if you don’t gamble, I’d encourage a walk through. My bet is you’d be absolutely astounded at what is happening in Cherokee.
I took a media tour a couple of weeks ago and, honestly, couldn’t believe what I saw. The reality that there is something that huge, that glitzy and that busy juxtaposed so near secluded mountains, vast wilderness areas and all of our very quaint, very small downtowns at first take seems a little odd.
What’s not odd, though, is how Harrah’s has changed the fortunes of the tribe — and the region — for the better. In fact, as this recession lingers, it’s painful to imagine how Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties would be faring without the casino revenue.
The casino, in what is admittedly an understatement, has blossomed. It now employs more than 2,000, and that will go up to 2,400 once the current expansion project is done. It attracts about 3.6 million gamers annually, making it the state’s largest tourist attraction.
And now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants approval, to use a poker term, to go all in: it wants dealers instead of video machines, a move that it estimates would add at least another 400 jobs. Along with those dealers, say gambling industry insiders, would come tens of thousands of more patrons.
The governor and the tribe are both playing hardball in the dealer negotiations, and reportedly the two are not very close to a deal. The state wants an agreement with the tribe for a percentage of casino revenue for its coffers before allowing dealers. While we agree that the state should gets its fair share, we also hope state leaders take into account what Harrah’s provides for a region that has little industry, few large corporations, and traditionally doesn’t get the attention that is lavished on the coast or the urban centers in the Piedmont. I suspect every leader in this part of the state wants the casino to continue to prosper.
Here’s what leaders in Raleigh need to understand: the casino is the right kind of tourist attraction for the mountain region. It doesn’t pollute like a traditional factory (and thereby spoil the attraction of the mountains), doesn’t add to urban sprawl, doesn’t strain infrastructure, and its patrons come for a few days, spend their money and leave.
The state spends millions on tax breaks to attract jobs in other parts of the state, and yet it could shackle the next planned casino expansion because it wants more revenue than the tribe has so far been willing to relinquish.
It’s been more than a decade since the state let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to gambling. Not only did leaders roll out the welcome mat for the casino, it has since set up a lottery. So there’s no moral or ethical argument for delaying approval of the tribe’s attempt to win approval for dealers. It’s all about the money.
The governor, state leaders and the tribe need to get a deal done so Western North Carolina’s lead economic engine can reach its full potential.