After several weeks of discussion, Cherokee Tribal Council voted 11-to-1 last Thursday to build a small second casino and hotel on an 85-acre tract in Murphy.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks said he was pleased a decision was finally made. Hicks has spoken in favor of expanding the Eastern Band’s casino operations beyond its flagship Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.
The new gambling venture would be located about 45 minutes from Cherokee proper. It is not part of the main reservation but is one of many satellite tracts that make up the patchwork of tribal lands known as the Qualla Boundary.
The approved plans include a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot casino with both Vegas-style table games and video gambling machines, plus a 300-room hotel.
Members of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, a five-member board that oversees the tribe’s casino operations, have worked for more than two years on the Cherokee County casino project, collecting data on projected revenues and expenditures, finding the right property and hammering out possible financing.
John Houser, chairman of the tribal gaming enterprise, was happy to have cleared the hurdle of getting formal Tribal Council approval.
“The support by council was overwhelming,” Houser said.
Job creation was one motivator for the new casino project for Adam Wachacha, a Tribal Council representative from the rural Snowbird area in Graham County. The casino will create as many as 800 jobs close by.
Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee employs more than 2,500 — hundreds of those are tribal members — but it’s up to an hour away for those living in the satellite areas of the Qualla Boundary in the far western counties.
“They have been traveling, a lot of them, and it’s a hardship,” Wachacha said. “They are ecstatic.”
The projected revenue from the casino was also appealing to tribal council members — $100 million in profits its first year of operations, according to Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise projections. Even after backing out $48 million in profits the flagship casino is expected to lose as a result of the second casino opening, the tribe would still come out more than $50 million ahead.
Big Cove Representative Bo Taylor was undecided about the casino last month, but once his questions were addressed, the numbers swayed him to vote in favor of the project, he said.
“I was definitely on the edge of the fence,” Taylor said. But “Our needs grow every year.”
The new money will allow the Eastern Band to invest in its people, infrastructure and more services for enrolled members, Hicks said.
“We are looking to put some money in the coffers to expand services,” Hicks said. “It is hard to argue that we are not investing properly. Look at our successes.”
Now that Tribal Council has sanctioned the casino project, the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise has the green light to buy the property, finalize plans and apply for state and federal permits — from engineering permits to permission from the National Indian Gaming Commission.
“Hopefully, we would be able to get a shovel in the ground in early fall,” Houser said.
They will construct a temporary casino operation on the Murphy property, while the permanent casino is still being built. The temporary facility will take six months to get up and running but could open about this time next year. The permanent casino building will follow a year after.
The enterprise will also begin talks with leaders at Harrah’s about a management agreement. Harrah’s, a subsidiary of Caesars Entertainment, already manages the Eastern Band’s casino in downtown Cherokee.
Although a majority of the Tribal Council supported the casino project, it has critics and skeptics.
A series of informational meetings were held in communities through Cherokee in February. Some enrolled members questioned whether the tribe should take on more debt. They asked whether the tribe should continue to concentrate its economic development model around gambling. Some also worried that the Murphy casino would siphon people away from the main casino and, as a result, have adverse affects on locally owned shops and restaurants dependent on tourist traffic.