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Wednesday, 13 March 2013 21:56

Cherokee Tribal Council mulls over second casino

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Cherokee Tribal Council was asked to green light the construction of a second $110 million casino and hotel near Murphy last week but instead voted to table the issue for further study.

The new casino could add about 800 jobs to the area and expand Cherokee’s market reach, according to projections by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, which is advocating for the project.

 

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, a massive and lucrative casino and tourist destination resort in Cherokee, is located in downtown Cherokee. The second casino would be about 70 minutes away on a satellite area of the reservation in Cherokee County.

Members of the tribal gaming enterprise submitted a resolution to Tribal Council last week, asking for an endorsement and permission to proceed with plans for the second casino. The enterprise board estimated that a second casino would bring in an additional $50.7 million in profits during its first year.

But Tribal Council members weren’t ready to endorse the Cherokee County casino, saying there were still too many unanswered questions.

“I am not saying I am against this,” said Big Cove Representative Perry Shell, who motioned to table the resolution. “I think it is important that we do get all these questions answered.”

The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise held a series of community meetings the week prior to council, and concerns were raised about taking on more debt as well as the effect a Cherokee County casino would have on tourism in downtown Cherokee.

Since attendance was limited at the community meetings, Tribal Council wanted more time to inform enrolled members about the facts and hear feedback.

“The perception is we are going to do it no matter what the people say,” said Bo Taylor, a Big Cove representative.

Tribal Council member Diamond Brown initially made a motion to allow planning for the casino to proceed. Although the tribe still owes money toward the Harrah’s Casino and Resort in downtown Cherokee, it has brought in hundreds of millions to the tribe and employs many area residents, he said.

“Where would we be today without that casino?” said Brown, a Snowbird representative.

But, after it became apparent that most council members supported tabling the matter, Brown withdrew his motion. The council unanimously voted to hold off on further casino planning until a nighttime public meeting is scheduled.

More than 12 percent of Cherokee County’s working population is unemployed, making the estimated influx of jobs from the proposed new casino welcome growth, according to its supporters.

“There is a lot of support and excitement,” said Larry Kernea, an economic development leader in Cherokee County and general manager of Murphy Electric Power. “This area needs the jobs.”

Kernea appeared before Tribal Council last Thursday and updated them on technical aspects of the project, including access to utilities and right-of-way onto the property. According to Kernea, there is water, sewer and electricity just off the land.

A road and bridge to get to the property would need to be built, however. Kernea, who is also on the N.C.  Board of Transportation, advocated on behalf of the tribe to get the state highway department to build what the tribe needs.

Up until last week, N.C. DOT officials had offered a verbal commitment, but the Eastern Band wanted something more concrete.

“A road that is paved with intentions is a long road,” Kernea said.

So as an assurance, the N.C. DOT wrote the Eastern Band a letter of commitment last week saying if the tribe proceeded with the Cherokee County casino, the state would do the same with the bridge and road.

The letter stated that DOT is “committed to fund these roadway access improvements,” meaning state taxpayer money will foot the bill for road and bridge leading to the casino property. In some cases, road projects undertaken purely to serve private development can require some sort of cost share.

It is unclear whether the road and bridge to the casino would still have to go through the usual permitting and prioritization process for state road projects.

 

Property musical chairs

The tribe is eyeing an 85-acre tract owned by an enrolled member, Donald Palmer. Despite being far from Cherokee-proper, it is part of a patchwork of outlying “trust” land that is still considered an original part of the Cherokee Reservation.

If the casino project advances, the tribe would purchase the 85 acres to construct the casino and a 300-room hotel on.

Palmer had previously offered to sell the Eastern Band his property a few years ago, but the tribe pursued a different tract for a casino closer to Andrews. Now, a portion of that property has been embroiled in a land dispute, and so tribal leaders returned to the tract near Murphy.

Some enrolled members questioned why the tribe did not purchase Palmer’s land in the first place and avoid spending $5.4 million on property that is now tied up in litigation.

“That land was available then, and we should have bought it,” said Teri Taylor, an enrolled member from Birdtown. “I am not against a casino in Cherokee County, but we have already spent $5.4 million.”

A few years back, the tribe purchased 790 acres near Andrews for a casino complex. However, that land was not originally part of the Qualla Boundary, and so the tribe legally couldn’t build a casino on it. It could be home to parking lots, restaurants and hotels, but actual gambling operations can only be built on land that was originally part of the reservation at the time of its creation.

The tribe’s plan was to acquire a 200-acre tract adjacent to the larger 790-acre tract that was indeed part of original Qualla Boundary and thus could have a casino on it.

The tribe met resistance when trying to acquire the critical 200-acre tract that was the lynch pin in the project, even resulting in a civil court suit.

Tribal leaders said that the 790-acre tract could still be used at a later date for another project. 

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