On June 4, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will go to the polls to cast their vote on the most controversial issue that has faced the tribe in recent history — whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
The vote is a historic one, marking the first time in more than a decade tribal members will go to the polls to weigh in on whether beer, wine and liquor can be sold on the Qualla Boundary.
A vote on alcohol sales was soundly defeated in 1992. But over the past decade — since the arrival of the casino and a monetary motivation — tribal leaders have toyed with the idea of allowing alcohol sales within the casino only but not the reservation at large.
It made the hot-button issue more palatable, but tribal leaders still stopped short of holding a referendum until citizens themselves pushed the measure onto the ballot with a petition.
The issue remains a divisive one among tribal members. In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the vote are busy mailing out flyers, putting up billboards and giving speeches to bolster their case.
Two main groups have emerged to campaign in the debate over the alcohol vote. The opposition is composed primarily of a coalition of the 20-some Baptist churches in Cherokee who are staunchly opposed to the consumption of alcohol in all cases.
“I’d be fine if they have prohibition all across the nation again,” said Bo Parris, pastor at Cherokee Missionary Baptist Church. “I promote abstinence from alcohol.”
A second group made up of supporters of the measure contends that alcohol at the casino is strictly a business decision that will help increase revenues that benefit the tribe.
“We think it’s definitely the right thing for business,” said Norma Moss, head of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, which directs and guides tribal casino operations. “It’s a business decision, not a moral decision.”
Luring casino traffic
Since it was constructed just over ten years ago, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has been a boon to the tribe. Casino revenues have helped the Eastern Band, once considered the poorest population in the region, to build schools, a hospital, and housing for tribal members.
But casino profits are waning with the recession. The tribe received a total $223 million from the casino in 2009, down from $244 million in 2008.
Supporters of the upcoming referendum say the addition of alcohol is crucial to attracting new customers and keeping casino profits up. Harrah’s Cherokee is the only casino in the Harrah’s chain that doesn’t sell alcohol.
“Alcohol is very much a part of the business model for casinos, and if you’re going to make a casino as successful as it might be, then you need to provide alcohol,” said Don Rose, chairman of the petition committee that helped get the referendum on the ballot and a tribal council candidate.
Rose says alcohol is needed to keep the casino competitive with others in the region.
“In business you either go up or down — you don’t stand still,” Rose said.
The tribe is working to increase the casino’s viability with a $633 million expansion currently underway. The expansion will add world class restaurants, shopping, and a spa, as well as double the number of hotel rooms and the size of the gaming floor.
“As we build our expansion, our goal is to become a resort, and we want to attract more destination gamers,” Moss said.
But a true resort, Rose argues, provides all the amenities a traveler is looking for, including alcohol. Studies have shown that for destination gamers in particular, the availability of alcohol is important. Seventy-three percent of destination gamers consume alcohol.
“For destination gamers that travel to resorts, that are loyal to properties, the lack of alcohol is an issue,” Moss said. “Our ability to sell alcohol enhances our image as a destination resort. We’re really excited about the products we’re going to have if we have alcohol. It opens up new possibilities for us to be able to offer something different to the customer.”
Casino officials hope the availability of alcohol would increase the casino’s customer base, and attract not just gamblers, but large conventions as well.
All told, new customers could increase casino profits by a minimum of $44 million, and as much as $70 million, each year, Moss said.
The casino’s multi-million dollar expansion will definitely increase casino revenues all on its own, even without alcohol, Moss said. But alcohol would provide a way to increase profits without putting up a large amount of capital.
“The investment of capital that we’re putting into the master plan project is significant,” Moss said. “What we will put into putting alcohol in place, if it’s passed, is a small amount of capital for a big return.”
Opponents of the alcohol referendum say their fear is that the vote will open the door to allowing alcohol elsewhere on the reservation.
“I don’t think it will stop at the casino,” said Ed Kilgore, pastor of Acquoni Baptist Church.
Moss wonders how many restaurants on the reservation would want to serve alcohol.
“I don’t know how many businesses would actually be interested in serving alcohol,” said Moss. “Our number of restaurants in Cherokee is somewhat limited.”
But some business owners beg to differ.
“Why should the casino have it and not restaurants?” questioned Jenean Hornbuckle, who, along with her husband, runs the Cherokee Motel, which sits directly across from the casino. Hornbuckle fears allowing alcohol exclusively at the casino will create unfair competition for small business owners who can’t offer it.
Trickle down effect
Whether casino profits are up or down has a direct impact on tribal members and the services they receive from the tribe. Of the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among individual tribal members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.
Per capita payments could prove the biggest motivator when members of the Eastern Band cast their votes next week. The first of two per capita checks this year will be distributed June 1, just three days before the alcohol referendum. The first check is in the amount of $3,892 — smaller than last year’s two payments, which averaged about $4,390 each.
Supporters of the alcohol referendum are using the smaller per capita amount to sway voters.
“We point out that the per capita is less than it was last year,” Rose said. “If we had alcohol, that would not have been the case.”
So will per capita checks really have an impact on how tribal members vote? Rose thinks so.
“I think that if this one did go down, they’re fearful that the next one will be less,” Rose said. “I think it will be a substantial impact on decision making.”
Moss and the TCGE have predicted that if alcohol is added to the casino, per capita payments will increase by about $9,000 per person by 2015.
Parris and others who oppose the measure are less optimistic about promises of increased revenues due to alcohol. Parris points out that casino revenues nationwide have plummeted in the wake of the recession.
“We don’t believe that the sale of alcohol would boost the money that comes in,” Parris said. “Casinos across the country are having trouble. The whole country in general is having trouble.”
Nonetheless, Parris concedes that the promise of larger per capita payments will sway tribal members to vote in favor of the measure.
Besides per capita payments, the idea of maintaining and growing tribal services could also convince people to vote for the alcohol referendum.
“We have basically on the reservation a one-trick pony called the casino, and it’s been terrifically successful,” said Rose. “As a result of that success we’ve entered into programs dependent on the casino revenue stream, things like infrastructure, water and sewer, housing and education for the children.”
But Kilgore said referendum supporters can’t prove that tribal services will benefit from the measure.
“Are they willing to put in writing a guarantee?” asked Kilgore. “No, because they have no idea. Implying that is a smoke promise. It’s not a valid argument, because it’s not proven.”
What Kilgore and others in the opposition camp do say is proven is the negative affect alcohol will have, and already has had, on the tribe. Historically, alcoholism has affected a disproportionate number of Native Americans, and those who oppose the measure say the Cherokee are no different.
“The Cherokee people have over the years had a real problem with alcohol,” said Kilgore, who has experienced firsthand the devastating affects of alcoholism.
“As a former foster parent, I’ve dealt with children that have had to be removed from their homes because of alcohol abuse,” Kilgore said. “I have listened to these children lie in bed at night, crying out for their parents.”
Alcoholism, “effects the individual, their families, and the community as a whole,” Parris said. “Alcohol is a drug, and divorce in families and family abuse goes with it; even killings in the past.”
Supporters of the measure like Rose acknowledge that increased use of alcohol can contribute to those things, but disagree that allowing alcohol at the casino will lead to divorce, abuse or murder.
“Will selling alcohol by the drink in the Cherokee casino increase the consumption of alcohol and cause those things? The answer is absolutely not,” Rose said. “For one thing, alcohol is already there. Secondly, the local people are not going to go to the casino and pay $7 for a drink, when you can get a bottle for that amount in Bryson City (the location of the nearest ABC store).”
Moss said tribal members aren’t the casino’s targeted customers anyway.
“We are not marketing alcohol to tribal members, we’re marketing to our customer base,” Moss said. “It’s an extremely low percentage of tribal members that visit the casino. Very, very low.”
After months of tense debate, the decision of whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino will be left in the hands of voters June 4. The referendum requires a turnout of more than 30 percent of registered voters, and needs a majority vote to pass.
Both sides of the issue are hopeful, but somewhat hesitant to predict the outcome.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the results,” Rose said. “My feeling is that people are recognizing the downturn in the economy and the potential impact on the tribe to continue the services it’s providing and the amount of per capita. A lot of people are saying I’m not in favor, but the greater good will be served.”
Kilgore said he’ll really only know where the tribe stands when all the votes are totaled.
“It’s very difficult to gauge because you will not really know where people stand until they mark their ballot,” Kilgore said. “But I feel very good that the Lord is going to give us a victory.”
A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but has been toyed with several times since then.
1980: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 2 to 1.
1992: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.
1999: Patrick Lambert, head of the gaming commission, convinced tribal council to hold a referendum on alcohol sales. A groundswell of opposition spurred council members to cancel the referendum before it could be held.
2006: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a referendum on alcohol sales at the casino. Opposition swiftly mounted a campaign. TCGE withdrew their request before tribal council had a chance to vote on it.
2008: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a tribal referendum on allowing alcohol sales at the casino only. It narrowly passed tribal council, but was vetoed by Chief Michell Hicks.
2009: Supporters of a referendum submit a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote.