The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians plans to build a Class II gaming facility in Cherokee County, but the project will not move forward without a fight.
Earlier this year, the Tribal Council approved the concept of a satellite gaming facility to be built in Cherokee County, where tribal members owns more than 5,000 acres and there are hundreds of enrolled members.
The facility would give the tribe a gaming presence close to East Tennessee’s population centers in Chattanooga and Knoxville.
Last Thursday, Principal Chief Michell Hicks indicated at a tribal council meeting that he had signed papers on a land deal that would give the Tribe road access to two pieces of land it has purchased for the purpose of developing the gaming facility, which would likely be home to a high-stakes bingo parlor and some similar games played on video platforms.
But at least two members of the Tribal Council –– Painttown Rep. Terri Henry and Big Cove Rep. Theresa McCoy –– have said they’ll do what it takes to stop the deal from going through.
Henry and McCoy were the only two members of the council to vote last month against authorizing a committee within the tribe “to continue the planning and negotiating, and the seeking of necessary bank approvals and to secure all necessary bank loans” for a gaming facility.
McCoy said she objected to the construction of a new gaming facility because the tribe is already over-extended with debt from the $600 million expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
Henry has said the closed-session negotiations over the land deals involved in the process should be handled in open session.
Henry and McCoy filed a protest to the resolution last month, but the council voted it down. With the majority of the council and Principal Chief Michell Hicks behind the project, the issue appeared to be a fait accompli. But during a council meeting last Thursday, McCoy and Henry played a wildcard.
Having traveled to Cherokee County to meet with landowners near the recently purchased trust lands, McCoy alleged that the deal Hicks brokered through negotiator Lew Harding would unnecessarily cost the tribe $6.5 million.
According to McCoy, landowners in Cherokee County have already agreed to sell another piece of property in the vicinity for $2 million in addition to giving the tribe a right-of-way worth $2 million.
“If you’re going to do this to our people, then do what’s best for them and bring it in at the least amount, consider all the options, make your minds up yourselves,” McCoy said. “Let’s stop listening to what Mr. Harding has to say. He has lied to this family, he has lied to other people in this community, and he has lied to this tribal council.”
Donald Palmer, an enrolled member and Cherokee County landowner, owns the tract of land just south of the site where the tribe plans to build the gaming facility.
Palmer said he was approached by Harding three months ago and told he would be able to negotiate the sale of his land, but never heard from him again.
“Evidently he forgot about us down in Cherokee County. We’ve got a good property for gaming,” Palmer said.
Henry introduced Mr. Palmer to the council during its meeting on May 6 and cited the information he shared as proof that the committee in charge of negotiating with landowners hasn’t been doing its job.
“The reason I’m bringing this up today, Mr. Chairman, is because this is the information the council should have been presented back in March,” Henry said. “This is how we could have made an informed decision on this.”
McCoy told the rest of the council that they needed to visit Cherokee County to talk with landowners and see the land for themselves.
“Our point has been this. Go and see before you make a commitment. This is an opportunity at a $2 million deal versus a $6.5 million deal,” McCoy said. “The whole point behind this is you have been misled, I have been misled, our people have been misled since this whole project began.”
McCoy said she would reintroduce motions that would bring the land deal to referendum and formally protest the committee authorization during June sessions.
When asked if the pending land deals had gone through, Hicks said the resolution and a bank document were signed on May 5, but he did not know if any money had changed hands.
Hicks defended the land negotiations and said they came through a committee process that Henry was part of.
“As each one of these requests came to me, and I told you this before, I pushed it to the committee,” Hicks said. “I kept pushing them to the committee, and I had confidence that they would make the right decision and bring the right recommendation back to us as a tribal body.”
Acting Tribal Council Chair Alan Ensley said the council would schedule a work session on the issue, during which Cherokee landowners in the vicinity of the proposed gaming facility could present information.