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Murphy gaming expansion set to open in spring

Lumpy Lambert, executive director of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino, shares progress from the construction site Dec. 11. Lumpy Lambert, executive director of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino, shares progress from the construction site Dec. 11. Holly Kays photo

The Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy is abuzz these days as 200 on-site construction workers hustle to finish a $275 million expansion project expected to open in 2024. 

“It’s a great story for us,” said General Manager Lumpy Lambert. “We’re excited about the end product.”

That end product, the casino’s first major expansion since it opened in 2015, will add 25,000 square feet to the gaming floor, including 400 new slot machines, 12 table games, a 10-table World Series of Poker room and a 22-seat casino bar. The project also includes a 1,700-stall parking garage that will connect via sky bridge to the hotel complex, which will get a new 296-room tower, indoor pool, fitness center and 12,000-square-foot rooftop restaurant.

When ground broke on the project Sept. 29, 2022, it was expected to be done in early 2024 within the $275 million budget. The casino expansion remains on track to meet those benchmarks. General contractor Robins & Morton has not had to tap into any of the contingencies built into the budget, Lambert said, and the casino expansion is expected to open in late April or early May. The hotel is scheduled for completion in late fall or early winter next year.

“Everything is going extremely well, knock on wood,” Lambert said.

“We don’t need to knock on wood. We’re not like those other jobs you read about that gave everybody up on this COVID inflation and everything,” added Jimmy Peavy, senior director of design and construction for Caesar’s Entertainment. “We’re able to manipulate the design and our use of trade contractors across the region and land this thing within the budget in the schedule we’re working toward.”

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About 200 construction workers are currently on the project. Holly Kays photo

Through the plywood doors that now mark the entrance to the new casino space spreads an enormous, high-ceilinged room that will be the new gaming floor. Once the project is done, a plywood wall at the back of the room will come down, joining the new space to the existing gaming floor. To the right of the entrance extends a long hallway leading to an elevator shaft, which will serve a yet-to-be-built parking deck. Connected to the right side of the gaming floor are spaces that will serve as the bar and poker room.

“They’ve done a really excellent job thus far getting it dried in,” Lambert said. “We got heat inside the facility, so that’s making it much more manageable for their team.”

Right now, the space is still very much a construction zone. Drywall remains unpainted as crews work to finish mudding and sanding. Floors are concrete, ceilings a grid of metal. The beeps, clatters and smacks of construction work punctuate every conversation. But Lambert and Peavy think the final product will be something to admire.

“We’ve got a new carpet coming in, which means we get to replace the existing [gaming floor] carpet after the first of next year,” Peavy said. “It’s got bits of mountain scenes and some other tips of the hat I’d say towards the area and the tribe. We’ve got wood slats coming for the ceiling. I wouldn’t say we’re copying the existing gaming floor. We’re complementing it and improving it.”

news Valley River Casino drone shot

As seen from the air, progress continues on the $275 million expansion project. Robins & Morton photo

Once complete, Lambert expects the expansion to add about 100 jobs to the casino’s existing 1,000 positions, while about 900 people have worked on the construction site over the past year. The casino had struggled to fill vacancies  in the wake of the pandemic, recording 140 unfilled positions in July 2021, but vacancies have since fallen below pre-pandemic levels. There are currently about 50 open positions, Lambert said, and that number includes the roughly 30 people that typically enroll in the casino’s table games training class. 

The expansion project is unfolding amid a pivotal moment for the tribe’s gaming enterprise, which is seeing its two-decade monopoly on the region’s gambling market come to an end. Temporary casino facilities are now open in Bristol, Virginia, and Kings Mountain near Charlotte. In 2023, total per capita distributions — payments tribal members receive in December and June each year as shareholders in the casino enterprise — fell  compared to the 2022 total.

Lambert expects that the expansion will help the casino reassert its place in the competitive landscape.

“We recognize competition’s here,” he said. “We’re embracing it, and we’re going to continue to do our part and do the best we can to make sure that the guest experience is as best as it can be, and what will drive that is our service. Our employees provide great service to our guests, and our guests choose to come back because of that service that they receive from our employees.”

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A rendering shows what the 22-seat bar on the new gaming floor will look like once complete. Donated image

Lambert also pointed out that, apart from the new amenities, the Valley River experience will improve once construction ends because guests will have an easier time finding parking once they arrive. The areas where the new gaming floor, parking deck and hotel tower are being built were previously parking areas, creating a temporary parking shortage. 

“Right now, our guests are choosing not to come to us and not fight the disruption of construction, and that’s been kind of a given,” Lambert said. “And we just know that we’ve got our work cut out for us to get that Knoxville customer to come back to us, keep the Atlanta customer coming to us, Chattanooga, and certainly our 100-mile radius, two-hour drive, we cater to anyhow.”

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