New GM’s job is to make good on Harrah’s gamble to transition from casino to resort

When Brooks Robinson left his manager’s job at Domino’s Pizza to be a dealer in the fledgling casino market of Tunica, Miss., he wasted little time finding that first rung in his climb up the corporate ladder.

“I had never been in a casino,” Robinson admits. But he knew an opportunity when he saw one.

“The gaming world was coming to Mississippi, and it was so interesting to me. There was a great opportunity in that market. I had high hopes of quickly moving up the ranks,” Robinson said.

Now 18 years later, Robinson has gone from frontline card dealer to the general manager of the $500 million a year operation of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

Robinson takes over the top position at Harrah’s Cherokee this week from Darold Londo, who has steered the casino through a major $633-million expansion over the past six years.

It’s Robinson’s job to follow through on the expansion, not only overseeing the final phases of construction over the next year but managing the opening of myriad new restaurants and retail shops within the resort.

His biggest challenge is far less tangible, however.

“People say if you build it they will come, but in the state of the world we are in today that is not always the case,” Robinson said. “We have to go out and do a strong job of promoting this new resort and sharing with the rest of the world what we have to offer.”

Indeed, that’s the ultimate jackpot behind the expansion. It has set the stage for Cherokee’s casino to capture not only a new demographic of gamer, but any tourist looking for a destination resort in the mountains. More than 1,000 first-class hotel rooms, an array of restaurants, nightlife, big-name entertainment, shopping, and even a spa will remake Harrah’s Cherokee Casino into a bona fide resort unrivaled by any other in North Carolina.

“We can appeal to a whole segment of the market we haven’t been able to previously,” Londo said. “Brooks is taking charge of an organization that is bigger, more dynamic, more complex. It has more potential than what we had six years ago.”

Potential, however, is the key word.

“You can build the box and create the structure, but the marketing piece and the delivery of service, the promise to our guests of a different experience and feel of this property is something we have to really focus on,” Robinson said.

For Harrah’s Cherokee to come into its own as a true resort, Robinson has to inspire a new culture among its 2,000-plus employees. Working at a resort takes a different mentality.

“It is more than excellent customer service. It is creating and environment that is totally resort like,” Londo said.

Every employee has to be part-salesman. Room service waiters should be able to tell guests what concerts are coming up, valet attendants should be familiar with the restaurants menus, and so on.

It’s true now more than ever, after news this week that the casino will at last be able to offer live table games — something Robinson didn’t know for sure when doing the interview for this article.

When the tribe embarked on the casino expansion six years ago, it hoped that live table games would be in its cards one day, rather than the video gambling machines it had been limited to. Live table games with real dealers was contingent on approval from the state, however.

After years of lobbying and months of hard negotiating, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed a deal with the tribe this week to make that dream a reality (see related article).

It makes Robinson’s job all the more daunting — and exciting — to overhaul the casino floor and bring the new table games online.

Robinson has put down roots in Haywood County, where he lives on five acres in Bethel with his wife and two teenagers. He is the only casino general manager at Harrah’s that raises goats and chickens and harvests vegetables from a backyard garden — although his wife takes most of the credit for their family experiment in farming.

When Robinson made the move to Harrah’s last summer, he knew the general manager post might be in the cards one day.

“It was like that rookie quarterback in the NFL that is behind a superstar waiting in the wings to take over,” Robinson said.

The Cherokee casino is a standout among the 40 properties under the Harrah’s corporate brand, Robinson said.

“The reputation of this team is something that is known across our company,” Robinson said. “It was clear when I got here they had truly adapted and wanted to be the best they could possibly be.”

Robinson came to Cherokee from Harrah’s Louisiana Downs casino where he served as vice president of operations.

The roll of assistant general manager will be filled by Lumpy Lambert, an enrolled tribal member and current vice president of casino operations.

“The long-term experience and proven track record Lambert brings will help us complete our transition to a resort destination,” said Robinson.

Lambert joined the casino in 1997, its very first year in business, as a casino operations supervisor. In 2002, he became vice president of operations. Lambert was a critical member of the team who defined the property's master plan expansion project.

As for Londo, he has taken on a new role at the corporate level of Harrah’s over new and expanding markets. It will be Londo’s job to size up locations for new casinos and envision what type of casino would work.

The expansion in Cherokee proved Londo has a knack for turning dreams into reality.

“Obviously I didn’t join Harrah’s thinking I was going to be a development guy,” Londo said. “But I love it, it is fun.”

Chief Hicks won’t veto alcohol vote

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.

“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”

Cherokee is currently dry, with no beer, wine or liquor sold in restaurants or convenience stores — with the exception of Harrah’s Casino. Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.

The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.

Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.

Hicks is okay with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine turning up on the shelves of gas stations and package stores cropping up across the reservation.

Instead, Hicks wants the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.

Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribal ABC stores.

Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”

Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from cropping up on rural areas of the reservation as well, like the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.

The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.

The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.

Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might other leave the reservation in search of alcohol in Cherokee.

However, many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.

The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.

The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.

Members of the Eastern Band are expected to vote on the referendum in April and can approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

 

Cherokee plays hardball with state on casino

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has agreed to give up 8.5 percent of the gross revenue from new table games if the state will open the doors for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

In addition to the live dealers, the tribe wants a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory. The state has agreed in principle — but exactly where to draw the line around Cherokee’s exclusive gaming territory remains a major sticking point.

The tribe and the state have made major strides in working out a deal, however. What was once a wide chasm in their negotiating positions has closed to a mere gap over the past 11 months of talks and correspondence.

“I believe we are on the verge of success,” Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote to the governor’s office earlier this month. “Let us resolve these few remaining concerns in short order. Hundreds of new jobs and much needed revenue for the state depend on it.”

Hicks urged the governor’s office to agree on a deal by this week, in time for the General Assembly to take up the issue. State lawmakers are usually on a prolonged recess this time of year, but returned to Raleigh this week to take up a handful of pressing issues that couldn’t wait until the new year.

An agreement with the tribe is tentatively on the General Assembly’s agenda, should the governor and tribe manage to work out their differences.

 

Where to draw the line

Initially, the tribe agreed to give up 8.5 percent of gross revenue from new table games if the state promised no other casinos would be allowed anywhere in North Carolina.

The state countered that was too big a territory. Cherokee conceded, agreeing it would settle for being the only casino west of I-95. That would satisfy the state’s Lumbee contingency, which hopes to one day get federal recognition as an Indian tribe and potentially open a casino in the eastern part of the state.

But the state again said Cherokee was asking for too much exclusive territory. In the latest counter offer from the tribe, the tribe said it would settle for being the only casino in the western half of the state — determined by the state’s geographic mid-point. But if the tribe had to acquiesce in its quest for exclusive gaming territory, it was no longer willing to give the state an 8.5 percent cut of profits, and instead offered 4.5 percent.

“The portion of our revenue to be shared with the state will depend upon the area of exclusivity provided to the tribe,” Hicks wrote in a letter to the state this month.

The governor’s office replied that it wanted at least 7 percent of the tribe’s revenue, and wanted to limit the tribe’s exclusive casino territory to merely “west of Asheville.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office has more than the tribe to contend with in the gaming negotiations. Perdue and Republican lawmakers are at odds over what the casino money should go toward.

Perdue wants it earmarked for education, namely pre-K education initiatives that saw budget cuts from Republican lawmakers this year. But Republican lawmakers want the Cherokee casino proceeds to simply go into the general budget with no restrictions on their use.

Cherokee has been lobbying the state for more than five years for permission to bring in live dealers with dice and cards and real table games rather than the electronic and video gaming the casino is currently limited to. But negotiations hit a brick wall under former Gov. Mike Easley but were reopened under Gov. Perdue.

The tribe and the governor have bandied offers and counter offers back and forth since January. In one of the most recent exchanges, the state went out of its way to compliment the tribe on the nature of the parley.

“At the outset, I want to express how much we appreciate the cooperative and collegial manner in which we have concluded these negotiations as we work together on these important issues,” Mark Davis, general counsel to the governor, wrote to the tribe’s Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky.

Who has the upper hand at this juncture isn’t clear. Getting live dealers at the casino is critical to the tribe’s financial wellbeing: The Eastern Band has a $633-million expansion to pay for at a time when the recession has taken a toll on casino business.

Meanwhile, the state has budget problems of its own that need solving, and the prospect of a lifeline from Cherokee is coming none to soon.

Sen. Davis makes political rounds to tribal council

N.C. Senator Jim Davis spoke about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ contribution to Western North Carolina at a tribal council meeting in Cherokee last week.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort contributes about $375 million to the economy in Western North Carolina, and it’s benefit “goes far beyond that,” said Davis, R-Franklin.

Council members inquired how much the state gave to the Eastern Band each year.

“Not enough,” responded Davis, who did not know an amount offhand.

The casino has been an economic engine for the area.

“Swain County for many, many years was the poorest county in the state,” said Bo Taylor, a tribal council representative from Big Cove. “We provide jobs in WNC.”

Harrah’s, which employs about 2,000 people, is the largest employer west of Asheville. It doles out more than $53 million in salary and wages each year.

Casino jobs account for 5 percent of all employment in Swain and Jackson counties, according to a June 2011 economic impact report by the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Taylor added that money generated and wages paid from Cherokee businesses, including the casino, go back into the local economy, promoting further economic growth.

More than 80 percent of the wages and salaries paid out by the casino is fed into the local economy, according to the report.

During his visit, Davis praised the independence for the tribe and received a gavel with a beaded handle.

“I have great admiration for your tribe, for the sovereignty you have,” he said.

Many members of tribal council thanked Davis for supporting Cherokee and for being easily accessible.

“I want to thank you for stepping forward and supporting the Eastern Band,” said Councilwoman Tommye Saunooke. “There’s not many legislators that would do that.”

Cherokee bands combat claims of native ancestry by “faux” tribes

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma have officially banded together against “fabricated” tribes accused of stealing the Cherokee identity.

“It’s something that’s important to all Cherokees — all federally-recognized Cherokees. Many times people are taking our identity,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council representative for Big Cove.

There are three federally recognized Cherokee bands in the U.S.: the Eastern Band here in Western North Carolina and the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band in Oklahoma.

Tribal Council for the Eastern Band passed a resolution addressing what Cherokee sees as a growing threat to its culture and heritage from groups claiming to be Cherokee. The resolution states that the Eastern Band will work more closely with the Cherokee Nation to combat “the ongoing and growing problem of these fabricated Cherokee groups.”

The resolution also established the Cherokee Identity Protection Committee, which will continue to speak out against these groups.

Faux tribes include people who truly believe they are Cherokee but cannot prove their native lineage. Occasionally, groups purport false Cherokee heritage to get government benefits or as a marketing gimmick for arts and crafts.

One concern for both the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band is that the “fabricated” tribes will disseminate misinformation about the Cherokee, their history and their origins.

“Lots of times some of these groups have a story that is not accurate,” Shell said.

The dispute between the officially recognized Cherokee and the faux tribes is about preserving Cherokee culture, “not necessarily about money,” Shell said.

But Shell said he has a problem with people who claim to be Cherokee solely to receive monetary benefits. Federally recognized tribes, such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, get federal dollars to help pay for housing and are also licensed to sell authentic Native American arts and crafts.

Some members of unrecognized tribes have said that the federally recognized Cherokee do not want to share the government funds they receive. Therefore, they strike down other’s claims of Cherokee descent.

The Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band have compiled a list of more than 200 faux tribes in the U.S.

Tribes on the list assert that they are indeed Cherokee and want to respect the traditions of their ancestors without interference.

“We are not taking anything away from them,” said Jack “White Eagle” Shryock, of the Southeastern Cherokee Council in Missouri. “We do not intend to take anything away from them.”

Shryock said that anytime his band attempted to get state recognition, someone from a federally recognized tribe would testify against their assertion that they are Cherokee.

“They do not want more people recognized. Then they would have to accept them,” Shryock said, adding that the current federally recognized bands would then have to “spread out the money.”

Chief Buffy Brown of the Southeastern Cherokee Confederacy of Pennsylvania said she does not want federal recognition.

“My personal feeling is that the government — the federal government — does not have to recognize me because I know who I am, and my parents know who I am,” Brown said.

WCU library sharpens focus on regional history with two new websites

Individuals with an interest in the region’s past can now search two new online archives devoted to Cherokee culture and the evolution of travel in Western North Carolina.

Both sites are maintained courtesy of Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.

“Travel Western North Carolina” includes images and commentary about 27 towns and communities in WNC over five decades. The site allows users to follow a route along footpaths and wagon trails in the 1890s, take a train ride in the 1910s, and drive by car along mountain roads in the 1930s.

Each “stop” includes a description of the community and excerpts from primary documents of the time, including newspapers, letters and guides. The site is online at www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections/TravelWNC.

“Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of Our Elders” unites information about Cherokee basketry, pottery, woodworking and more and includes information about artisans and archival photos. The “From the Hands of Our Elders” pages grew from a grant-funded, multi-institutional project that also saw the creation of two guides to Cherokee basketry and pottery. The site is online at www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections/CherokeeTraditions.

Photographs and documents from the sites are accessible by searchable databases, making rare and unique research materials accessible to students, researchers, teachers and the public. Both new collections formerly were elements within Hunter Library’s “Craft Revival: Shaping Western North Carolina Past and Present” website, a research-based site that documents an effort to revive handcraft in the western region of the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Anna Fariello, an associate research professor who headed the craft revival site’s creation and development, was responsible for generating much of the content in the “Cherokee Traditions” pages.

“I think this will be especially helpful to our students and researchers who want to look at authentic Cherokee material,” Fariello said. “The way I built this site, perhaps it could be added onto. It has the capacity to be expanded to include some of the other aspects of Cherokee culture that are focuses of WCU’s Cherokee Studies Program.”

Pages in the “Travel Western North Carolina” site – originally intended as context for the craft revival site – were created through research by George Frizzell, head of special collections, and illustrated with special collections documents. Frizzell wants visitors to the site to come away with an understanding that the WNC region changes and adapts like any other.

“I hope it shows people that this area changed with the arrival of new technologies, and that with the arrival of the railroad and automobile, the infrastructure was revised and revamped, and people acknowledged the impact on the economy,” he said.

Digitizing information serves a number of purposes, said Mark Stoffan, head of digital, access and technology services for WCU’s Hunter Library. Statistics show that the library’s digital collections are accessed by users from around the world. Increased digitization opens information to a broader audience. Digitization can help publicize collections – sometimes prompting gifts of similar materials – and helps protect originals from handling.

For more information about the new digital collections at WCU, call Fariello at 828.227-2499 or email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For a list of all Hunter Library’s digital collections, go online to www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections.

Business owners craft campaign to promote alcohol sales

A group of Cherokee business leaders will be a driving force in the campaign to permit alcohol sales on the reservation.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote in April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the currently dry reservation.

“Most business owners are saying the same thing — it would be a nice option,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber and the Cherokee ABC Board hosted a public meeting last Wednesday (Nov. 2) to gauge businesses’ opinions about the possibility of alcohol sales. About 20 people attended.

Several business owners said they had lost business because they are not permitted to sell adult beverages.

“It is imperative that our restaurants have alcohol,” said Morgan Owle-Crisp, a business owner and member of the tribe. Owle-Crisp added that potential customers travel to Asheville and other surrounding cities to eat and drink.

Beth Wolpert, manager of Yogi in the Smokies, a campground in Cherokee, said that she has had campers leave after finding out that they would have to drive 20 minutes to Bryson City to buy alcohol.

While tourism in Cherokee has improved over the past decade thanks both to the casino and cultural emphasis by the tribe, tourism overall on the reservation has been on the decline since its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, business owners said.

Alcohol could bring back some of that lost revenue, agreed business owners in attendance.

“We don’t have John Wayne out there promoting the Indians,” said Collette Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo.

Even if the referendum passes, the tribal ABC board will have the final say regarding who receives an alcohol permit.

To qualify to sell alcohol, a restaurant or grocery store would have to get 30 to 40 percent of its revenue from food sales, said Bob Blakenship, chair of the Cherokee ABC Board. Blakenship projected that a tribal ABC store would sell $500,000 in alcohol each year.

One reason for the major push to approve the referendum is a similar vote slated in Jackson County in May. If the measure passes, gas stations a stone’s throw from the reservation in Jackson County could sell beer and wine from their shelves. Jackson County could also place an ABC store selling bottles of liquor as close to Cherokee as possible, said Don Rose, vice chair of the tribal ABC board.

“It is going to be at our doorstep anyway,” he said. “All we’re doing is making it more convenient (to purchase alcohol).”

The three-part ballot will allow voters to separately weigh in on where alcohol sales should be permitted.

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

Tribe members can approve all, none, or one or two of these.

Attendees at the meeting talked about the wording of the ballot.

“You want simplicity in these question,” Rose said. “Otherwise, people won’t know what they are voting for.”

The Chamber of Commerce will hold its regular monthly meeting Nov. 15 and discuss funding for the campaign.

On Nov. 17, a campaign committee will meet at 9:30 a.m. at the Chestnut Tree Inn to begin formulating a plan, aimed at raising awareness and promoting the benefits of allowing alcohol on the reservation. The committee will discuss advertising in newspapers and on billboards as well as arranging an informational meeting for tribal members.

“People need to know it’s not going to be widespread,” said Steve Arch, owner of Big Bear Exxon Mart.

The committee will work under a tentative deadline of April 15 since it is currently unknown when or if the vote will occur.

A plan and funding for a campaign should be in place 90 days before the vote, Rose said.

Tribal Council approved the referendum regarding reservation-wide alcohol sales last month, giving tribal members a say in the historically controversial issue.

Nine out of 12 council members voted for the referendum. The other three didn’t exactly vote “no.” Two voted to table the measure, the third was out of town for the vote.

Chief Michell Hicks has until Nov. 23 — 30 days following the tribal council vote — to veto the referendum. As of Monday afternoon, Hicks had yet to make a decision.

Even if the chief shoots down the measure, tribal council can override his veto with a two-thirds majority, which they appear to have.

Tribal members have voted against allowing reservation-wide alcohol sales twice before. In 2009, however, voters approved a referendum to permit the sale of alcohol in the casino.

While proponents say alcohol will help Cherokee’s economy and attract tourists to local businesses, opponents of the referendum cite religious convictions and a long history of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.

Let the battles begin in Cherokee

Cherokee tribal members could vote this April on whether to allow alcoholic beverage sales on the reservation, one month before a similar referendum will be held on legalizing sales countywide in neighboring Jackson County.

Cherokee’s referendum is contingent on Principal Chief Michell Hicks signing off on a resolution passed last week by nine of the 12 Tribal Council members.

Hicks has 30 days from Oct. 24, the day council voted, to make up his mind.

Asked Monday if he would allow the vote to go forward, Hicks said in response: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m still praying on it.”

Hicks might not be able to stop a referendum even if he tries, however. Tribal Council can override the chief if the council has two-thirds majority — which, unless some members reverse their votes, it would. One complicating factor is that tribal council members’ votes are weighted to account for the number of people living in the townships they represent. One vote does not mean one vote, in other words.

Hicks described the decision about whether to try and stop the vote as difficult, one that involves weighing both the “good and the bad” aspects of allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages to be legalized on tribal lands.

“It has to be a determination for all of our people and not just a few of our people,” he said, adding that it’s also important to him that tribal members get some kind of voice in the decision to come. Which is the rub, of course — how best to give them that voice?

If Hicks allows the vote to take place, tribal members will decide these three questions. They could approve all, none, or one or two independently from the others:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

 

How it happened

A resolution calling for an alcohol vote was originally going to be brought before tribal council by the ABC commission of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. There’s an amendment, however, on the official resolution document. It notifies tribal clerks to strike the ABC commission as the origin and simply say state the resolution was Tribal Council-submitted. There is no additional explanation attached.

Chairman of the Cherokee ABC Board Bob Blankenship on Monday said that with neighboring Jackson County looking to vote on the same issue in May, he believed this is an opportune time for people in Cherokee to decide whether to legalize the sale of alcohol there, too.

“Jackson County needs it, we need it, everyone needs it who is involved in the tourism business,” Blankenship said bluntly.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment about the possible vote. The Cherokee chamber is hosting an “open forum” for members to discuss the issue Nov. 2 in Cherokee.

The resolution was approved by nine out of the 12 members of Tribal Council, with no one technically voting against it — member Terri Henry was given an official absence to travel; Mike Parker and David Wolfe voted to table the resolution.

Here’s who voted yes: Bo Taylor, Perry Shell, Gene Crowe, Bill Taylor, Jim Owle, Diamond Brown, Adam Wachacha, Alan Ensley and Tommye Saunooke.

 

In the community

It’s not easy to find someone in Cherokee willing to endorse the sale of alcoholic beverages, not with their name attached to the supporting quote in black and white print, right here and forever in the newspaper.

It’s a cakewalk to interview those in the opposition camp, however. That’s because there’s a sudden swell of anti-alcohol indignation in Cherokee, one tapping into decades and decades of fervently held sentiment. The iron fist in this velvet glove is the 20 or so Baptist churches that call the Qualla Boundary home, united in staunch and fierce opposition to the consumption of alcohol — period, the end, in every case and without exception.

There’s also the touchy subject of alcoholism and diabetes to pair with these fundamental Christian beliefs that predominate among the Cherokee. And about seeing the tribe’s young people thrive and prosper. And, of course, there’s the deep and real respect here for Cherokee’s elders, who traditionally have spoken in one voice — a united “no” — when it comes to legalized sales.

Charla Crowe, 49, agrees with that position.

“I do not want to see alcohol in Cherokee,” Crowe said, sounding the words distinctly and in a fashion that brooked no misunderstandings.

Crowe is a Wolftown resident and owner of the store, Cherokee By Design, which is located across the road from the Tribal Council house.

Asked why, exactly, she’s against alcohol being sold here in Cherokee, Crowe responded: “We were raised here in Cherokee, and it was dry. And I want it to stay that way. We just don’t need alcohol so readily available. I’m a Christian, and that plays a huge part in my decision. We’ve got enough problems for the kids without bringing this right to our door.”

Crowe voted “no” two years ago to allow the sale of alcohol at Harrah’s casino. Walt French, of the Yellowhill community, voted “yes.” Today, he regrets that vote.

“The only way it passed at the casino was because the per capita was supposed to go up, but it sure didn’t happen that way,” French said.

From the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among the tribe’s 14,000 members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.

Estimates in the days leading up to the 2009 casino-alcohol vote by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise put the per capita return to tribal members at about $9,000 per person by 2015. In other words, a “yes” vote allowing Harrah’s to sell alcohol meant more business for the casino, and in turn individual riches in an economically strapped region where extra dollars are tough to find.

His flat wallet, however, tells a different tale than what was promised, French said.

“Though I figured a vote would happen after they voted it in at the casino,” he said. Indeed, opponents at the time said allowing alcohol at the casino was a slippery slope that would sooner or later to lead alcohol reservation-wide.

“But I don’t think it’ll pass — I won’t vote for it again,” French said. “(Tribal leaders) made a lot of promises that didn’t happen. You tell a person he’s got $5, but you do this right here and you’ll get $20. Well, people do that; because they need that money in such a bad economy to buy food, pay for electricity.”

And, at 18, Victoria Wolfe, too, opposes the sale of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands.

Soft spoken and shy, Wolfe said simply, “I’m concerned about our kids. Drugs are already bad enough here.”

 

A timeline

A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales reservation-wide has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but the idea 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 submited a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote. It passed by a surprisingly large majority of 59 to 41 percent.

• 2011: Tribal Council approved a referendum for an April vote on allowing the legal sale of alcoholic beverages on all tribal lands. Hicks has 30 days to decide whether to allow the vote to be held, though Tribal Council can overturn a veto if there are enough votes.

 

Regional implications of Cherokee alcohol vote huge

A “yes” vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on Cherokee tribal lands will touch many more people than just enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voting in the special election next April.

That’s because the tribe has lands in four Western North Carolina counties: Jackson, Swain, Cherokee and Graham. Of those, Graham County currently stands solitarily as the one county out of North Carolina’s 100 counties that is totally dry. The others have alcohol sales inside town limits, even if the rest of the county does not. But in conservative Graham County, a six-pack of beer or bottle-of-wine are not to be had, even in the county seat of Robbinsville.

Here’s the sorest potential spot in what’s promising to erupt into a hotly argued issue, particularly in Cherokee’s most traditional communities — Big Cove, probably, but almost certainly in the Snowbird community in dry Graham County. Even if a majority of residents in a particular Cherokee community vote against alcohol sales, the door would still open if Cherokee voters overall — reservation-wide, that is — approve the resolution.

“Those are tribal lands,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in explanation. “This would be a tribal-wide vote.”

Jackson is dry, but alcohol sales are allowed in Sylva and Dillsboro. Swain is dry, but alcohol is sold in Bryson City. Cherokee County is dry, but alcohol is sold in Murphy and Andrews.

Also in play for tribal alcohol supporters is this fact: The Eastern Band is considering building a satellite mini casino on 200 acres in Cherokee County on tribal lands outside of Andrews. This vote might well open the door to alcohol sales at this hybrid, not-quite-a-casino, but more-than-bingo facility. Cherokee voters in June 2009 approved the sale of alcoholic beverages at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in downtown Cherokee but not for the rest of the reservation.

— By Quintin Ellison

Watershed group aids Cherokee basketmakers

As clay is to the potter and stone is to the sculptor, river cane is the vital raw material to the Cherokee basketmaker. But it’s in short supply.

The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River has received a grant from a Cherokee artisans group for $9,500 to locate cane stands along the river to provide a local supply source for basketmakers.

Roger Clapp, WATR director, has issued a call for volunteers to help with the river cane hunt, which will run through September 2012.

With a revival of basketmaking in Cherokee, artisans are having to travel farther and farther from home to find cane suitable for their use, said David Cozzo, director of Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources, which provided the grant.

It wasn’t long ago, said Cozzo, that the art of basketmaking had gone into decline to the point that there were only two Cherokee artisans making double-weave baskets. Supply of cane wasn’t a problem.

Then the Cherokee Preservation Foundation stepped in and started basketweaving classes. A revival ensued. Now, the craft is even taught in the Cherokee High School.

“With the cultural revival, the need for river cane has increased,” said Cozzo. His group is planning a trip soon to Kentucky to harvest cane from a “really nice stand” there. And the group is working with Sumter National Forest in South Carolina to find cane there for harvesting.

Cozzo is convinced that there is river cane enough in Jackson and Swain counties to provide an adequate local source — it just needs to be located and the owners persuaded to allow the harvesting.

Volunteers or owners of rivercane stands should contact  the WATR office in Bryson City at 828.488.8418.

 

WATR meets Nov. 7

The fall meeting of Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, in the atrium of the new Jackson County Library. Refreshments will be served at 6:30 p.m. Dan Perlmutter, a retired Western Carolina University professor, will discuss the proposed Watershed Activity and Discovery Science Center.

Alcohol vote could bring booze to Cherokee’s doorstep

Ray Bradley Jr. is the talkative type. He’s not shy airing his opinions, whether the discussion is about Cherokee tribal politics or, as is the case now, what legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County could mean along the highway leading to the reservation.

Growth, Bradley said confidently, will explode if a ballot measure next May opens the door for countywide alcohol sales in Jackson. It could bring with it major changes to the Gateway corridor — the stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation and the tourist magnet, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

Cherokee itself is dry, except for the casino property, which serves alcohol for in-house consumption only. The closest town to Cherokee to buy a six-pack or bottle of wine is Bryson City in Swain County, roughly 10 miles away.

Jackson County’s alcohol vote could change that, making alcohol available at the reservation’s doorstep, capturing not only the demand for alcohol by local Cherokee people but the tourist market as well.

County commissioner Charles Elders, who owns and runs a gas station on U.S. 74 a couple of miles from the turnoff to Cherokee, also believes the legal sales of alcohol could spur growth in that area. He said he personally wouldn’t sell beer, but that won’t be his decision to make — Elders, at 68, is preparing to turn the business over to his son, Dewayne.

If alcohol became readily available at Cherokee’s doorstep, Bradley thinks that would bring development on par with Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Elders isn’t so sure of that, though he does endorse growth as a virtual inevitability if alcohol sales are voted in.

Bradley’s theory might seem a leap when compared with the sprinkle of businesses lining the corridor today: a few gas stations, a dollar store, thrift shops and several older motels, some of them now vacant. In Bradley’s book, rapid growth would be a good thing, bringing money, jobs and prosperity for many people now suffering without. This economic trifecta, he’s sure, simply awaits legalized alcohol sales. Bradley’s family runs a business along the four-lane highway, the Nu2U consignment shop.

“The Bible thumpers and the bootleggers won’t like it,” Bradley predicted. “But there’s no reason this gap shouldn’t look just like Gatlinburg within five years.”

Noel Blakely, owner of the Old Mill General Store and Craft Shop along the corridor, is more tempered in his view of alcohol.

The price of property on the highway in to Cherokee has increased lately, and Blakely thinks the prospect of legal alcohol sales could further that trend. It could bring a few nice restaurants and generally improve the caliber of businesses along the highway.

But Blakely believes the damage of making alcohol more accessible in Cherokee would far outweigh the benefits.

“I’m against alcohol,” said Blakely, a member of the tribe. He voted against bringing it to the casino, and if he decides to vote in the ballot measure next May, he would vote ‘no.’

Locals would no longer have to make the trek to Bryson City for alcoholic beverages, and that could fuel drinking problems on the reservation. Blakely said.

“I am a businessman and I would like to see that money stay in our community, but I see the damage it does,” Blakely said. “Jackson County is not going to pick up the tab for alcoholism.”

Bradley however, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is hopeful legalized alcohol sales just outside the reservation in Jackson County would force the tribe to follow suit. If voters in Jackson say ‘yes’ to countywide alcohol sales, dry Cherokee will have a tough choice to make: watch Jackson County rake in new business on the reservation’s very doorstep or take a cut by legalizing alcohol sales in Cherokee, too.

 

An economic tinderbox?

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t believe anything done by political outliers will move the reservation toward making “forced” decisions.

“Fortunately or unfortunately,” Pegg said, “nothing too much ‘forces’ Cherokee to do anything — over the years, Cherokee has done what it thinks is best for Cherokee. But if you can get alcohol on both sides but you can’t get it in the middle, while it won’t force anything, it might strengthen the argument for it here.”

Alcohol long has been a contentious issue in Cherokee. But two years ago voters approved the idea of selling it at the casino by a surprisingly large majority, 59 to 41 percent.

Last November, Jackson County residents voted in a new majority onto their board of commissioners. Headed by Chairman Jack Debnam, a political maverick and real estate man who doesn’t actually drink himself but has advocated for residents’ right to decide, the conservative-weighted board has signaled its intent to move forward with an alcohol referendum vote.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said that the wording of the ballot measure might be ready for review by commissioners at their meeting on Monday (Oct. 17). Debnam had asked Wooten and County Attorney Jay Coward to work on the document.

Wooten also believes that legalized alcohol sales would fuel business growth, particularly in Cullowhee with its Western Carolina University-student population. The same potential may hold true in the area of Jackson County outside Cherokee that some so strongly believe is an economic tinderbox waiting for just the right match to strike.

Jackson leaders saw the area primed for growth long before the prospect of countywide alcohol sales.

There is water and sewer in the area already, and a newly built sewage plant in Whittier with the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Although for now, it serves only a handful of customers.

The former board of commissioners, anticipating growth from the advent of water and sewer, even created a land-use plan to regulate the commercial development they thought would surely spring up eventually — no one wanted another U.S. 107 in Jackson County, that overbuilt, congested strip marking the southern end of downtown Sylva.

But the predicted growth never materialized. At least, it hasn’t yet.

 

Whittier once boomed; would alcohol sales make future difference?

Oxford Hardware Store is busy. As the nearest place for the community’s residents to find nails, tools and some household goods, this store has long served as the ‘town’s’ heart.

In the winter, older men like to gather picturesquely around the woodstove toward the back of the store. Even on a warm fall day such as this one, a number of the community’s residents still make their way inside.

Kandace Powers was among them. She stopped to pick up a few items and share whatever community news might be on tap. Powers believes legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages in Jackson County would be fine, “if nothing else, to help commerce,” she said. “It might help the economy.”

And, it might just help Whittier rebound a bit, too, she said. The one-time booming town, since turned sleepy hamlet, straddles the county lines of Swain and Jackson, several miles past the highway exit leading to Cherokee.

Whittier, incorporated in 1907 and unincorporated in the late 1930s, could once boast of large sawmills and even, according to local historian Gloria Noland, the largest department store west of Asheville.

The railroad fueled growth in Whittier. And the community, she said, has experienced sales of alcohol before — a beer joint and dance hall were located upstairs from one the store’s in Whittier, the two-story brick building where you first turn into the community after leaving the highway.

“Whittier, then, was truly looking forward to becoming a big city,” Noland said.

But the town fell on hard times with a timber-harvest decline, the Great Depression, and, perhaps, the final indignity of the devastating flood of 1940, she said. That was when the Tuckasegee River raged across Jackson County, changing the landscapes permanently in riverside communities such as Cullowhee and Whittier.

Today, there is little more here than a bunch of old houses, the Oxford hardware store, a post office, a community building and Noland’s thrift store. Housed inside is her “micro Whittier museum” and a model replica of 1900 Whittier, a reminder of better times and when the town attracted droves of tourists and shoppers.

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