Last week, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians celebrated the topping off of their new 21-story hotel tower, the centerpiece of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino’s $633 million expansion.
“This, for us, is a game-changer,” said Harrah’s Cherokee General Manager Darold Londo. “This is the exclamation mark on the resort.”
More than 1,000 workers gathered with tribal officials, casino administrators, and others to watch as the final steel beam, decorated with an evergreen tree, was hoisted by crane to the highest point of the structure.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks said the event was an opportunity to recognize the workers who had erected the tower in nine months, but also to celebrate the foresight of the tribe’s leaders in planning the expansion.
“I just want to take a moment to recognize the planning and foresight not only for creating these jobs, but for creating a facility that will benefit us for many, many generations,” Hicks said.
The 21-story Creek Tower will add 532 new rooms to the resort, doubling the casino’s overnight capacity and making Harrah’s Cherokee the largest hotel in North Carolina. Construction should conclude later this year.
The ceremony was a chance to recognize the grandiose nature of the casino’s expansion as a resort. When the project is finished, it will boast a Paula Deen Kitchen restaurant with 400 seats, 78 luxury suites with mountain views, a 16,000 square-foot spa, and a 3,000-seat auditorium.
Together with the new Robert Trent Jones-designed Sequoyah National Golf Club, the elements represent Cherokee’s move to remake itself as a resort destination.
For Norma Moss, chair of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, that’s exactly what the goal has been since the EBCI Tribal Council approved the investment in 2008.
“Take a good look around you,” Moss said. “Our masterpiece in the mountains is becoming a reality.”
For Tribal Council Member Perry Shell, who voted for the appropriation, said Cherokee and the tribe is becoming an economic driver for the region.
“I see this as an investment,” said Shell. “I think it will have a positive impact not only for the tribe, but for the entire area.”
Builder and tribe share love of ceremony
Topping off ceremonies are a 1,000 year-old tradition for builders, according to Turner Construction Company’s project manager Bobby Fay. With his 1,000-plus workers arrayed in front of him, Fay took pains to make sure they knew the ceremony was for them.
“This ceremony has traditionally been for the workers,” Fay said. “To honor their sweat.”
Fay, a bear of a man with a bushy beard, stood in a black full-length duster with his hard hat on and gave a rousing speech in English and Spanish to a delighted audience.
“We brought in the drillers from the south. The concrete workers from north over the mountains. The architects from the west. The steel workers from the east,” said Fay. “I’ve never had so many area codes in my phone.”
Londo said Turner Construction’s value system has been a good fit with the tribe and that was evident in the topping off ceremony, which began with a traditional prayer to the seven spiritual directions of the Cherokee offered by tribal Elder Jerry Wolfe.
“I love the fact that Turner honors traditions,” Londo said. “We appreciate those types of things in Cherokee.”
The company won the $120 million construction contract last summer, and they have worked hard to get the hotel tower up in just nine months. Miraculously, the project has not lost a day to weather, despite Western North Carolina experiencing an historic winter of snow and ice.
Fay said the hotel construction was on schedule to finish in December. In the meantime, the casino will be rolling out a series of new amenities. The first full bar on a gaming floor is scheduled to come on line next month, the events center will open Labor Day weekend, and Paula Deen’s Kitchen restaurant will start serving food late in the year.