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Joe Bock, an Indiana resident passing through this area on his way to Florida, was on a bit of a mission one recent day in Cherokee. Bock wanted to enjoy a beer with his lunch.

That desire remained unfulfilled, however — the restaurants on the Qualla Boundary, other than at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, are dry. Bock wasn’t particularly upset, and said the absence of a beer with his lunch wouldn’t deter a repeat visit to the region.

“But sometimes you’d just like a beer,” he said in something of a wistful tone.

Voters might change all that in April. Cherokee tribal members will vote on referendum questions that could bring alcoholic beverages to stores and restaurants reservation-wide.

One sticking point? News that Principal Chief Michell Hicks wants the tribe to control sales of beer, wine and liquor through a tribally run alcohol store rather than allowing it on the shelves of gas stations and grocery stores.

That concerns Pete Patel, who with his wife owns Jenkins Grocery, the last stopping point on old U.S. 19 headed west to Bryson City just before motorists leave the reservation’s boundaries.

“We’re struggling even to survive,” Patel said. “If we could sell (alcoholic beverages) legally, we’d like to sell them. We could use a little extra help.”

Hicks would support alcohol in restaurants, however, and that pleases Emily Geisler, the manager of Tribal Grounds, a popular coffee shop on the reservation.

“I think it’s really important, especially for restaurants, to be able to offer beer or wine,” Geisler said. “If somebody wants the full dining experience, now they have to go out of town.”

Businesses in Cherokee are gearing up for a campaign aimed at convincing members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to vote ‘yes’ on a measure that could end the nearly reservation-wide moratorium on the sale of alcohol.

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band, decided last Wednesday to allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.

“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people’s decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”

With the exception of Harrah’s Casino, Cherokee is dry. Restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations are not permitted to sell beer, wine or liquor.

Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.

The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.

In April, members of the Eastern Band will vote to approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

No matter which of the three items is approved, Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.

Hicks is OK with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine on the shelves of gas stations, and package stores cropping up across the reservation.

Instead, Hicks would prefer for the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.

Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribally operated ABC stores.

Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”

Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from rural areas of the reservation as well, such as the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.

The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.

The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.

 

Boon to business

Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might otherwise leave the reservation in search of alcohol.

Business owners met earlier this month to talk about ways to advocate for the passage of the referendum. They have formed a committee and several subcommittees to raise funds for their campaign, organize public forums and decide where to run promotional advertising.

Ninety days prior to the vote, which is expected to take place in mid-April, the committee will run advertising in newspapers and on billboards, encouraging tribe members to vote ‘yes’ and allow alcohol to be sold on the reservation. During the meeting, several people told stories of customers leaving and never returning because businesses cannot sell alcohol.

Telling people that they cannot buy alcohol on the reservation is a “very aggravating thing,” said Don Rose, a member of the Eastern Band, in a recent interview. Businesses in Cherokee could compete with those in surrounding towns if they are allowed to sell alcohol. Currently, visitors must travel to Bryson City or Sylva to purchase alcohol — or even to have a glass of wine with their meal.

“We are just trying to catch up with the rest of the world,” Rose said.

The Cherokee Chamber of Commerce and Rose agree with Hicks that businesses should purchase their alcohol from a tribally owned ABC store.

“That would be a definite benefit to have the money stay here,” said Matt Pegg, head of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “There are a lot of things we could do with that.”

Pegg emphasized that businesses would be under strict regulations regarding the sale of alcohol. The tribal ABC Commission would license individual businesses and teach owners and employees about their legal responsibilities as an alcohol reseller. A business could lose its license for violating regulations once.

“It wouldn’t just be a free for all,” Pegg said.

The tribe would reap the benefits of alcohol sales by funneling sales through its own ABC store.

Although both tribal council and Hicks approved the referendum, the battle to allow alcohol on the reservation is far from over. Many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.

The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.

The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.

After years of lobbying and months of hard negotiating, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sealed a deal with Gov. Beverly Perdue this week to bring table games, real cards and live dealers to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

“It has been along hard process,” said Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks. “With any negotiation you are going to have doubts but at the end of the day we kept pushing.”

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal.

The addition of table games will mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“Lots of people claim their huge economic impact and you can kind of see it if you squint and tilt your head the right way — but with these guys you can probably see it from outer space,” said Stephen Appold, senior research associate with the UNC-Chapel Hill business school, who authored a report on the casino’s driving economic force in the region.

The tribe is still one step away from final success, however.

The tribe needs the General Assembly to ink the deal. The General Assembly is out on winter break, aside from a brief return to Raleigh this week to take up pressing issues that couldn’t wait. The deal with Cherokee was supposed to be one of those issues, but Perdue is at odds with the Republican leadership in the General Assembly over the state’s cut of revenue off the new table games.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

Republicans balked this week at quick-signing the compact, saying they need more time for review. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, said the GOP-dominated General Assembly simply didn’t have adequate time to read and review such a lengthy document.

“I regret we weren’t able to vote on it this session,” Davis said. “But for the Governor to drop this in our laps without giving us a chance to read it seems shortsighted.”

Hicks said the tribe isn’t worried that the deal will fall apart, but merely sees it as a delay.

“It is frustrating but I am pleased we have progressed to the extent we have and I am confident in the very near future it will be approved,” Hicks said. “We’ve taken a giant step forward.”

Hicks, the vice chief, half a dozen tribal council members and a delegation of advisors from within the tribe and hired lobbyists spent the first part of the week in Raleigh getting the gaming compact signed by the Governor and pushing the General Assembly to take it up.

While the General Assembly doesn’t officially reconvene until May, Hicks hopes legislators will return to Raleigh soon to decide on the bill.

“We truly hope we don’t have to wait for May,” Hicks said.

The region desperately needs the jobs and the state desperately needs the revenue. Calling a special session of the General Assembly during the off-season to take up economic development isn’t unheard of. The state did it to approve incentives for Dell Computer several years ago.

“We are like any other company or organization. We feel if we are creating jobs, we should have our Governor and legislature get behind us,” Hicks said.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done to prepare for table games, and the tribe and Harrah’s aren’t wasting any time.

“As of yesterday the planning process was rolling,” Hicks said Tuesday.

Table games must be bought, space made for them on the casino floor, and an army of dealers must be hired. The hiring and specialized training of the casino dealers will be the lengthiest part of the process.

Hicks said the timeline for the roll out of live table games will be laid out within the week.

 

A delicate dance

Ultimately, Cherokee is giving up a share of its revenue on the new table games to secure the state’s approval. How much revenue has been a chief issue in the negotiations. The tribe also wanted a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory.

The two issues were linked at the bargaining table. Cherokee offered up a bigger piece of the pie if the state would promise to keep other casinos out of the rest of the state.

The state would only agree to a relatively small exclusive territory, however, and settled for a smaller share of revenue as a result.

Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

This helps Cherokee in the early years after rolling out table games, when the tribe is still paying-off its start-up costs for the games and realizing their potential.

As for exclusive territory, Cherokee got less of what it wanted. The state would only grant exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville.

Written correspondence between the tribe and the Governor’s office over the past four months paints a picture of their respective positions, and the compromises they arrived at as negotiations played out. Neither side would talk about their positions during the deal making, but letters between the two provide a surprisingly candid storyline of where the parties stood.

Only in retrospect are the tactics and bargaining positions of the tribe truly apparent.

“We knew where the stopping point was. Again in any negotiation you have to have a starting point and a stopping point. We knew how far we could push and how far we could be pushed,” Hicks said.

Those decisions were made in concert with the vice chief and tribal council, Hicks said. Cherokee drew on its history of more than 300 years of experience negotiating deals with other governments, “not all in our favor,” Hicks pointed out.

But in this case, the gaming compact is fair to both parties, with neither trying to take advantage of the other, Hicks said. Hicks said the tribe is pleased with its deal.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

That amount is sure to increase with the addition of live table games.

Until now, the casino has been limited to digital video gambling machines. Despite the handicap, the Eastern Band of Cherokee has catapulted to the forefront of WNC’s economy.

The approval of live table games comes just in time. The tribe is nearly finished with a $633-million expansion of the casino that remade the property into a destination resort.

When the tribe embarked on the expansion six years ago, it hoped that live table games would be in its cards one day — rather than the video gambling machines it had been limited to.

The expansion has already proved its worth, even without live table games rounding out the picture. Revenue peaked at Harrah’s Cherokee in 2007 before the recession began to take its toll. Profits have been on the rise since 2010.

Casino General Manager Darold Londo predicts Harrah’s Cherokee will return to its pre-recession levels by the end of next year — even without the addition of table games.

“That’s quicker than the industry,” Londo said, crediting the Cherokee expansion project. “The industry doesn’t expect to recover sometime until 2014 or beyond, whereas we expect to hit that sometime in 2012. We’ve had the ability to control a little bit more of our own destiny.”

When Brooks Robinson left his manager’s job at Domino’s Pizza to be a dealer in the fledgling casino market of Tunica, Miss., he wasted little time finding that first rung in his climb up the corporate ladder.

“I had never been in a casino,” Robinson admits. But he knew an opportunity when he saw one.

“The gaming world was coming to Mississippi, and it was so interesting to me. There was a great opportunity in that market. I had high hopes of quickly moving up the ranks,” Robinson said.

Now 18 years later, Robinson has gone from frontline card dealer to the general manager of the $500 million a year operation of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

Robinson takes over the top position at Harrah’s Cherokee this week from Darold Londo, who has steered the casino through a major $633-million expansion over the past six years.

It’s Robinson’s job to follow through on the expansion, not only overseeing the final phases of construction over the next year but managing the opening of myriad new restaurants and retail shops within the resort.

His biggest challenge is far less tangible, however.

“People say if you build it they will come, but in the state of the world we are in today that is not always the case,” Robinson said. “We have to go out and do a strong job of promoting this new resort and sharing with the rest of the world what we have to offer.”

Indeed, that’s the ultimate jackpot behind the expansion. It has set the stage for Cherokee’s casino to capture not only a new demographic of gamer, but any tourist looking for a destination resort in the mountains. More than 1,000 first-class hotel rooms, an array of restaurants, nightlife, big-name entertainment, shopping, and even a spa will remake Harrah’s Cherokee Casino into a bona fide resort unrivaled by any other in North Carolina.

“We can appeal to a whole segment of the market we haven’t been able to previously,” Londo said. “Brooks is taking charge of an organization that is bigger, more dynamic, more complex. It has more potential than what we had six years ago.”

Potential, however, is the key word.

“You can build the box and create the structure, but the marketing piece and the delivery of service, the promise to our guests of a different experience and feel of this property is something we have to really focus on,” Robinson said.

For Harrah’s Cherokee to come into its own as a true resort, Robinson has to inspire a new culture among its 2,000-plus employees. Working at a resort takes a different mentality.

“It is more than excellent customer service. It is creating and environment that is totally resort like,” Londo said.

Every employee has to be part-salesman. Room service waiters should be able to tell guests what concerts are coming up, valet attendants should be familiar with the restaurants menus, and so on.

It’s true now more than ever, after news this week that the casino will at last be able to offer live table games — something Robinson didn’t know for sure when doing the interview for this article.

When the tribe embarked on the casino expansion six years ago, it hoped that live table games would be in its cards one day, rather than the video gambling machines it had been limited to. Live table games with real dealers was contingent on approval from the state, however.

After years of lobbying and months of hard negotiating, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed a deal with the tribe this week to make that dream a reality (see related article).

It makes Robinson’s job all the more daunting — and exciting — to overhaul the casino floor and bring the new table games online.

Robinson has put down roots in Haywood County, where he lives on five acres in Bethel with his wife and two teenagers. He is the only casino general manager at Harrah’s that raises goats and chickens and harvests vegetables from a backyard garden — although his wife takes most of the credit for their family experiment in farming.

When Robinson made the move to Harrah’s last summer, he knew the general manager post might be in the cards one day.

“It was like that rookie quarterback in the NFL that is behind a superstar waiting in the wings to take over,” Robinson said.

The Cherokee casino is a standout among the 40 properties under the Harrah’s corporate brand, Robinson said.

“The reputation of this team is something that is known across our company,” Robinson said. “It was clear when I got here they had truly adapted and wanted to be the best they could possibly be.”

Robinson came to Cherokee from Harrah’s Louisiana Downs casino where he served as vice president of operations.

The roll of assistant general manager will be filled by Lumpy Lambert, an enrolled tribal member and current vice president of casino operations.

“The long-term experience and proven track record Lambert brings will help us complete our transition to a resort destination,” said Robinson.

Lambert joined the casino in 1997, its very first year in business, as a casino operations supervisor. In 2002, he became vice president of operations. Lambert was a critical member of the team who defined the property's master plan expansion project.

As for Londo, he has taken on a new role at the corporate level of Harrah’s over new and expanding markets. It will be Londo’s job to size up locations for new casinos and envision what type of casino would work.

The expansion in Cherokee proved Londo has a knack for turning dreams into reality.

“Obviously I didn’t join Harrah’s thinking I was going to be a development guy,” Londo said. “But I love it, it is fun.”

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.

“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”

Cherokee is currently dry, with no beer, wine or liquor sold in restaurants or convenience stores — with the exception of Harrah’s Casino. Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.

The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.

Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.

Hicks is okay with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine turning up on the shelves of gas stations and package stores cropping up across the reservation.

Instead, Hicks wants the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.

Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribal ABC stores.

Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”

Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from cropping up on rural areas of the reservation as well, like the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.

The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.

The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.

Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might other leave the reservation in search of alcohol in Cherokee.

However, many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.

The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.

The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.

Members of the Eastern Band are expected to vote on the referendum in April and can approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has agreed to give up 8.5 percent of the gross revenue from new table games if the state will open the doors for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

In addition to the live dealers, the tribe wants a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory. The state has agreed in principle — but exactly where to draw the line around Cherokee’s exclusive gaming territory remains a major sticking point.

The tribe and the state have made major strides in working out a deal, however. What was once a wide chasm in their negotiating positions has closed to a mere gap over the past 11 months of talks and correspondence.

“I believe we are on the verge of success,” Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote to the governor’s office earlier this month. “Let us resolve these few remaining concerns in short order. Hundreds of new jobs and much needed revenue for the state depend on it.”

Hicks urged the governor’s office to agree on a deal by this week, in time for the General Assembly to take up the issue. State lawmakers are usually on a prolonged recess this time of year, but returned to Raleigh this week to take up a handful of pressing issues that couldn’t wait until the new year.

An agreement with the tribe is tentatively on the General Assembly’s agenda, should the governor and tribe manage to work out their differences.

 

Where to draw the line

Initially, the tribe agreed to give up 8.5 percent of gross revenue from new table games if the state promised no other casinos would be allowed anywhere in North Carolina.

The state countered that was too big a territory. Cherokee conceded, agreeing it would settle for being the only casino west of I-95. That would satisfy the state’s Lumbee contingency, which hopes to one day get federal recognition as an Indian tribe and potentially open a casino in the eastern part of the state.

But the state again said Cherokee was asking for too much exclusive territory. In the latest counter offer from the tribe, the tribe said it would settle for being the only casino in the western half of the state — determined by the state’s geographic mid-point. But if the tribe had to acquiesce in its quest for exclusive gaming territory, it was no longer willing to give the state an 8.5 percent cut of profits, and instead offered 4.5 percent.

“The portion of our revenue to be shared with the state will depend upon the area of exclusivity provided to the tribe,” Hicks wrote in a letter to the state this month.

The governor’s office replied that it wanted at least 7 percent of the tribe’s revenue, and wanted to limit the tribe’s exclusive casino territory to merely “west of Asheville.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office has more than the tribe to contend with in the gaming negotiations. Perdue and Republican lawmakers are at odds over what the casino money should go toward.

Perdue wants it earmarked for education, namely pre-K education initiatives that saw budget cuts from Republican lawmakers this year. But Republican lawmakers want the Cherokee casino proceeds to simply go into the general budget with no restrictions on their use.

Cherokee has been lobbying the state for more than five years for permission to bring in live dealers with dice and cards and real table games rather than the electronic and video gaming the casino is currently limited to. But negotiations hit a brick wall under former Gov. Mike Easley but were reopened under Gov. Perdue.

The tribe and the governor have bandied offers and counter offers back and forth since January. In one of the most recent exchanges, the state went out of its way to compliment the tribe on the nature of the parley.

“At the outset, I want to express how much we appreciate the cooperative and collegial manner in which we have concluded these negotiations as we work together on these important issues,” Mark Davis, general counsel to the governor, wrote to the tribe’s Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky.

Who has the upper hand at this juncture isn’t clear. Getting live dealers at the casino is critical to the tribe’s financial wellbeing: The Eastern Band has a $633-million expansion to pay for at a time when the recession has taken a toll on casino business.

Meanwhile, the state has budget problems of its own that need solving, and the prospect of a lifeline from Cherokee is coming none to soon.

Help wanted signs aren’t too common these days. But there’s an anomaly here in the far end of the state, where Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is in the throes of a $633 million expansion, one that will bring 800 new jobs to an otherwise desolate labor market.

Hiring that many new workers — plus keeping up with turnover — is no small feat. The casino has averaged 30 new employees a week during the height of its expansion. It takes a staff of seven, day in and day out, to sift through all those applications and set up interviews. Hiring is such an all-consuming task that official signs point the way to “applicant parking” and even an “applicant entrance” on the casino property.

Harrah’s has hired 500 new employees over the past two years to run the new hotel tower, expanded gaming floor and half a dozen new restaurants. It has another 300 to go by this time next year when the expansion is built out.

“We are one of the few businesses that is adding jobs,” said Darold Londo, the general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “Name another company in North Carolina that will have 300 more employees at this time next year than they do today. You can’t. There isn’t one.”

The recession has made hiring easier for Harrah’s.

“When the economy was really going well, we had a bit more of a challenge finding people,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee. “The economy has helped us in that sense because a lot of people are without work.”

Employees are staying longer as well. Turnover averaged about 30 percent before the recession compared to 20 percent now.

“People are tending to hang on to their jobs. There aren’t a lot of other opportunities out there,” Blaylock said.

While out-of-work Realtors or laid-off teachers have given Harrah’s hiring a boost, Blaylock predicts some will return to their primary field when the economy recovers.

But for now, Harrah’s is an oasis of jobs in an employment desert.

Kim Gurdock of Franklin was ecstatic to land a job with Harrah’s recently after months of looking for work. She moved to the mountains from south Florida earlier this year, giving up more than two decades as a teacher to forge a new life in a better place. But the only job she could find was working at McDonald’s.

“I had applied for 42 jobs in Franklin,” Gurdock said, a list that included the school system, banks, grocery stores and retail. Gurdock felt like her lack of local roots was a strike against her.

She starts this week as a food runner in the VIP lounge at the casino. Her boyfriend also got a job at Harrah’s as a cook, and she hopes they can work the same shifts to carpool for the 45-minute commute.

Her story isn’t that unusual.

“It is amazing the number of job applications any more that we get for jobs. It used to be 15 applications, and now it is 75 or 80,” said Dale West, the Employment Security Commission manager for Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. “If there are openings, people will apply if they think they are at all qualified.”

Josh Williams, an accounting student at Western Carolina University trying to pay his way through school, was commuting from Sylva to Asheville to work at J.C. Penney, one of the only jobs he could find. But his hours kept getting cut. So he applied at Harrah’s on the advice of a friend at school. He starts this week in food service at the new Paula Deen’s Kitchen restaurant on the property.

He considers himself lucky “considering jobs are scare right now,” he said.

 

A blow to unemployment

Harrah’s payroll accounts for 8 percent of all wages and salaries in Jackson and Swain counties. It’s one of Western North Carolina’s largest employers, and not just for people in Cherokee.

Tribal members make up less than 20 percent of Harrah’s workforce — only 350 of the nearly 2,100 employees are Cherokee.

The number seems low at first blush, considering Cherokee is home to about 7,000 tribal members. Some are obviously too young or too old to work. Others are stay-at-home moms, disabled or have otherwise dropped out of the workforce.

A large number of tribal members work for tribal government and agencies, nearly 1,000. Then there’s the myriad gift shops, hotels and restaurants plying the tourist trade in Cherokee — and suddenly the pool to draw from locally isn’t all that large.

The upshot to the region is that the casino has to look outside Cherokee for a huge number of its employees.

Unemployment in Swain County was 18 percent in 1995 before the casino opened. It dropped to a low of just 5 percent in 2006.

“It has made all the difference in the world as far as unemployment,” said Brad Walker, the mayor of nearby Bryson City. “If you want a job, you can get one. It has improved the lives of a lot of the people in Bryson City and Swain County. It is fantastic.”

While the recession has driven unemployment in Swain back up to about 13 percent, it could be far worse without the casino.

Most notably, perhaps, is the improvement in the labor market in winter months when tourist jobs historically dried up. Before the casino, the unemployment rate in Swain regularly topped 30 percent in the winter. By 2006, however, unemployment even during the dead of winter was as low as 8 or 9 percent.

“Before the casino a lot of tourist places closed for the winter and now they stay open,” said Vicki Horn, who works at the Employment Security Commission in nearby Bryson City.

Interestingly, the success of the casino has made the total job market more robust, eating into the available workforce for the casino itself.

“The casino has allowed tribal members to work other places,” said Vicki Horn with the Employment Security Commission in Swain County.

Casino revenue flows to tribal coffers, creating jobs for members of the tribe. The same goes for private businesses now thriving thanks to casino spin off.

“This hotel wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the casino,” said Walker, the general manger of the Fairfield Inn in Cherokee.

 

A challenge to hiring

The huge influx of casino employees has stressed the affordable housing market. Affordable housing for blue-collar workers is a challenge in most communities. But it was particularly true in the mountains, where real estate prices have been driven sky high by the burgeoning retiree and vacation home market, leaving low-paid hourly workers in the service industry struggling to find housing they could afford.

A surprising number of new hires at the casino have moved here specifically for the work, but have trouble finding somewhere to rent.

“I had a guy come in yesterday who told me he had accepted a position at the casino and was looking for a rental,” said Megan Cookston, a Realtor at Yellow Rose Realty in Bryson City. “That is a problem in this area. They ask ‘Where do we look?’ and really the only place to guide them to is the newspaper, but there is not that much there.”

Yellow Rose manages short-term vacation rentals, and those have been doing a brisk business thanks to the massive $633 million expansion at the casino. Construction companies have been renting houses to put up their laborers in town for the job.

“Electricians, plumbers, people hanging sheetrock — it is just everything,” Cookston said.

To meet its hiring goals, Harrah’s solicited the help of Haywood Community College to hold job fairs on the casino’s behalf. Once a month, Harrah’s hiring team travels to Waynesville to tap a fresh pool of applicants.

“We can see 30 in a day instead of 30 driving over here,” Blaylock said.

Harrah’s has a strict drug testing policy that likely hurts its employment pool. All new hires are tested for illegal drugs using a hair sample, which detects substances going back 90 days, far more stringent than the standard urine test. Every month, the casino does random drug testing on 1 percent of the work force, selected from a computer-generated list.

“The drug test is something that we do not waver on,” Blaylock said. “I think some people don’t apply because they know we do drug testing.”

 

All about the perks

Salaries at Harrah’s vary widely based on the job. Stewards make $8 an hour, while cashiers make $9. But food service supervisors make $45,000 a year, and the grounds supervisors and top chefs make up to $55,000.

But the benefits, particularly the health insurance, make up for what the salaries may lack.

Nationwide, businesses are cutting benefits as they grapple with rising health care costs. Employees are ponying up a greater share of their insurance costs and forking over higher deductibles and co-pays.

At the casino, workers don’t pay a dime toward their health insurance.

“They are better benefits than you will find anywhere else,” Londo said. “You can thank the tribe for that. Cherokee has established that as the norm for anyone who works for the tribe.”

The tribe covers the full cost of medical, dental and vision insurance for all tribal employees, and extends those benefits to the casino as a tribal entity. Legally, the casino can’t have two tiers of benefits for employees — it can’t offer better coverage to enrolled members than non-tribal members — so everyone, whether Cherokee or not, enjoys the generous health insurance plan of the tribe, Blaylock said.

Harrah’s takes the health of employees seriously. As a self-insured entity, every doctor’s visit comes out of the casino’s bottom line.

To cut those costs, the casino is hiring an in-house physician’s assistant and will open two onsite exam rooms in January. Being able to see a doctor at work will also cut down on employees clocking out for doctor’s appointments.

Employees also get a physical every quarter. If they are overweight or if their cholesterol is too high, the casino gives them a cash incentive to meet health goals. Al Lossiah, a employee trainer, bragged about getting $75 for losing 25 pounds this year.

“Then I gained it back and they’ll pay me to lose it again,” he joked.

To encourage fitness, Harrah’s has an onsite workout room with treadmills, bikes and rowing machines open to any employee who wants to use it.

Some employees probably don’t need it though. Gaming hosts walk an average of eight miles every shift, while the laundry team hefts 12,000 pounds of linens in and out of machines each day.

Alternatively, a pair of black leather vibrating massage chairs are up for grabs on breaks or after your shift.

While health insurance tops the list of coveted benefits, it’s one of many offered by a company that prides itself on taking care of its employees. Workers get a 3 percent match to a 401K, plus a pension worth another 3 percent of their salary. Vacation time maxes out at a liberal six weeks after nine years on the job.

There’s non-tangible perks, too. Harrah’s partners with Southwestern Community College to offer GED classes onsite at the casino and covers the enrollment fee for anyone who wants to pursue it.

There’s also assistance of the monetary variety. Harrah’s makes grants or loans to employees that have fallen on hard times through its “employee care fund.”

If an employee is dealing with a difficult teenager at home, substance abuse in their family or the stress of caring for elderly parents, Harrah’s pays for counseling.

“It is easy to say leave those concerns at the door and come in and service the guests, but in reality it is not that easy to do that,” Blaylock said. “We take a holistic look at our employees. If they feel good about themselves, they will exude that when they are talking to the guests.”

In that sense, Harrah’s loyalty to its employees isn’t entirely benevolent. It’s a little more mercenary than that: happy employees equal happy players equal more money at the end of the day.

 

Total Harrah’s Cherokee employees: 2,084
Jackson    796*
Swain    690*
Haywood    308
Macon    121
Graham    50
Buncombe    27

*Figures for Jackson and Swain include employees living on the Cherokee Reservation, which lies partly in both counties.

The proposal to hold a referendum on whether alcohol could be sold at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino was withdrawn before it got a formal hearing at a recent tribal council meeting. This is a potentially earth-moving change for the Eastern Bandof Cherokee, and it deserves careful consideration and a thorough, open debate before it is put before voters.

A debate over whether to sell alcohol at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has pitted conservative tribal members against the economic interests of the casino, which generates revenue for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

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