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No dice for Catawba’s casino bid

fr casinoBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent

When it comes to Vegas-style gaming, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort has hedged its bets on being the only game in town … in the region … in the state … in the surrounding five-state area.


Now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians faces the remote prospect of competition from another tribe that’s eyeing the cash cow of tribal gambling in North Carolina. 

The Catawba Indian Nation, a federally recognized South Carolina tribe, has floated a proposal for a 220,000-square-foot casino with two hotels and an “entertainment complex” employing 3,000 people and contributing millions to the local economy.

While the tribe is based in South Carolina, a casino is a non-starter with lawmakers there. The Catawba instead set their sights on North Carolina, where there’s already a precedent for tribal gambling in the state.

Specifically, it wants to put a casino near Kings Mountain, N.C., just 40 miles west of Charlotte and short hop from I-85 and I-26. With such a strategic location, a casino there could pull the economic rug from beneath Cherokee’s feet.

With ground on a second Cherokee casino in Murphy freshly broken, it’s a particularly inopportune time to see the specter of competition on the eastern horizon. Tribal officials are being fairly tight-lipped about a Catawba casino.

Cherokee Chief Michel Hicks put out a statement citing his “concerns” about the proposal, but the statement’s language is understated, and the tribe hasn’t taken on any public lobbying at the state or national level just yet.  

“We are greatly concerned that this development will negatively impact job growth and revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and for the western region of North Carolina,” said Hicks, and continued on to say that they were monitoring the situation as it unfolds. 

Perhaps the Eastern Band is reserving harsher judgment because it knows what a long road the Catawba casino must travel before a dime of gambling money falls into its coffers.

A majority of North Carolina lawmakers are against it — 102 legislators out 120 serving in the General Assembly signed a letter to the Secretary of Interior in September opposing the Catawba’s bid to expand its land holdings  in the state. 

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, was one of the signatories.

“I just think that allowing one opens the door to everybody that wants to open a casino in North Carolina to come,” said Davis. “The Catawba Indians are based in South Carolina. Are we then going to allow the Iroquois to come in? I just think that it’s a federal issue.”

Davis said that he doubts the measure will get any traction at all in the General Assembly, and indeed, the list of legislators who signed the opposition letter draws from both sides of the aisle. 

However, a Catawba casino isn’t entirely without supporters.

It’s not fair to allow one tribe to have a casino and not another, according to a statement by N.C. Rep. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover.

“It is not the role of the General Assembly to pick winners and losers,” Goolsby said. Either allow it for all federally-recognized tribes in the state, or shut down the casino in Cherokee, but “the state cannot have it both ways,” he said.

Goolsby also pointed out the economic boon for the area.

Initially, Gov. Pat McCrory held meetings with the Catawba, but has since joined the opposition camp. He’s concerned, his office says, about the loophole it would open for other tribes with ancestral connections to North Carolina to besiege the state with gambling enterprises. 

“I’ve seen no argument to justify it whatsoever,” was McCrory’s simple response, and many of his colleagues are on the same page, at least their signatures are. 

It doesn’t hurt that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a political powerhouse in the state.

In 2012, the Eastern Band of Cherokee made campaign contributions to 86 current members of the House and Senate, and pitched in $4,000 to Gov. McCrory’s campaign.

Still, the threat, however slim, of competition is probably unnerving one for the tribe.

When Cherokee was negotiating with the state to add live dealers and table games two years ago, the tribe agreed to give the state a cut of its revenue if the state in turn promised no other casinos would be allowed anywhere in North Carolina.

The state countered that was too big a territory. The state went back and forth with Cherokee, narrowing down the tribe’s claim to exclusive casino territory to west of I-95, then west of I-77, and finally arrived at only west of I-26.

Davis recalls the years Cherokee spent negotiating permission to add live dealers.

“We really had to work hard for that,” said Davis. “It just shows that there are a lot of hurdles that the Eastern Band had to go through.”

He doesn’t see the door swinging open for Catawba anytime soon.


A long road ahead

The Catawba tribe appears undaunted by the political challenge it faces wooing North Carolina lawmakers into their corner. The tribe has even commissioned drawings for a proposed casino.

But the first hurdle Catawba faces is in fact a geographical one — because despite lending its name to a raft of North Carolina landmarks, the Catawba Indian Nation is a South Carolina tribe. To build a North Carolina complex, the 16-acre tract of land it is eyeing must be deemed part of the tribe’s federal trust lands by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is an arduous process that can take years, if it even meets the criteria.

Supposing the Catawba did successfully leap that hurdle, and the proposed tract was added to their tribe’s official land holdings, the next obstacle facing them is the North Carolina General Assembly. Lawmakers would need to approve any gaming by the Catawba in North Carolina. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be the case. Thanks to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a state can’t stop a federally-recognized tribe from operating a gambling operation on its own land. It would technically only need permission for live-dealer style table gaming.

The Catawba Nation, however, find themselves in a much more restrictive situation. 

Historically, the Catawba did stretch across both of the Carolinas, which is why many landmarks in both states still bear the tribe’s name. But over time, as was the case with many Native American tribes, their land was taken or sold off piecemeal to settlers, explorers and opportunists, and by the mid-20th century, the Catawba were down to a beleaguered stretch of land in South Carolina.

The tribe’s numbers were dwindling, and it didn’t have federal recognition or any of the money that goes along with it. But with the resources the tribe had left, it began to mount a lawsuit, trying to reclaim the thousands of acres taken over the centuries.

In the end, the tribe settled to the tune of $50 million in 1993. The Catawba put the money to use buying 300 acres of land for a reservation in Rock Hill, S.C., building housing, a government and a better life for its 2,800 members.

But the federal settlement came with some strings attached. In return for the money, the tribe signed away its rights to run gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. 

Thus, in Catawba’s case, it would need state permission to operate a casino. 

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