As Harrah’s Cherokee Casino closes on the final year of a massive $633 million expansion, the hum of construction that’s been a backdrop to life in Cherokee will give way to a luxury resort positioning the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for unparalleled economic dominance in the region.
“It is unlike anything else that has ever been attempted,” said Erik Sneed, the tribe’s construction oversight manager for the expansion. “You’ve seen projects like this in Vegas or Atlantic City. Rarely have you ever seen it in Indian Country.”
The project had 1,100 construction workers at its peak and 43 architects and interior designers.
Anecdotes depicting the sheer size of the project are limitless. Sneed traveled to Korea to negotiate directly with Samsung for televisions. Nothing quite says purchasing power like an order for 800, 42-inch flat screens.
The expansion was a monumental attempt to change the face of Cherokee’s casino into a resort destination and draw a new demographic of gamer.
It was pursued at great cost, and perhaps risk. It’s the largest construction project in the Southeast, no small feat in recession times. But the tribe simply could not continue to sit on its laurels, said Darold Londo, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee.
“There were people who were happy with what they had, the whole ‘one in the hand worth two in the bush thing,’” Londo said. “We don’t have that luxury because our customers play elsewhere. They go to all the other gaming markets in the country. There is an incentive to keep pace with them.”
When the expansion is finished next year, the casino will have pulled off a five-year construction project while remaining one of the most profitable Harrah’s casino properties in the nation.
“My boss never wanted to hear construction used as an excuse. He said ‘Don’t tell me your revenues are off or your services scores are down because you’re building something new. I just don't want to hear it,’” Londo said.
Londo’s boss at corporate headquarters wasn’t the only one unwilling to give the Cherokee casino a pass on making revenue goals while in the throes of construction.
There were 13,900 other people — the enrolled members of the Eastern Band — counting on profits holding steady. Casino profits flowing to the tribe hovered around $225 million the past two years, with half funding tribal programs and the other half paid out directly to the Cherokee people in the form of twice-annual checks.
The tribe relies on casino money for many of its services, from subsidizing the hospital and the school system to native language programs for children. Families rely on their individual cut to make car payments, buy medicine and put their kids through college.
“One of the primary goals was to not affect the tribe’s distribution,” Sneed said.
The expansion won’t only double the number of games to a total of 4,600, but includes a complete renovation of the existing gaming floor.
The biggest challenge: maintain players’ experience and never, ever, go off line. Keeping the casino’s 3.6 million annual guests isolated from the construction zone around them was a feat in itself. False walls created a bubble around the operable areas of the casino while hundreds of construction workers toiled just on the other side.
“I call it the ticking dominoes,” Sneed said. “We’re cascading through a construction sequence.”
Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, has been a doting spectator of the expansion.
“It has been impressive just to watch it,” Pegg said. “One day you walk around the corner and there is a big wall. The next day they have taken that wall away and there are 500 more machines or a food court.”
One work-around to keep the casino running amidst the construction — quite literally — stemmed from the unfortunate location of the main electrical room. It sat smack dab in the middle of the old motor coach lounge, destined for demolition to make way for an upscale steak house.
Contractors ruled out moving the main electrical room, which houses all the power panels that run the casino. Instead, they decided to demolish the building around it. Crews couldn’t mess up. Knock out the casino’s electrical power, and the lost revenue per minute was unthinkable.
“They were nervous as cats,” Sneed said of the demo crews.
Electrical crews couldn’t exactly kill the power either when it came time to move or add circuits, so specialized teams donning full-body rubber suits and helmets to work with the high-voltage live circuits.
While the guests are oblivious to the construction zone surrounding them, it’s hard to miss once you’re back-of-house.
Drill-slinging construction workers clad in blue jeans and work boots, tool belts clanging about their waists, scurry up and down the employee corridors. Drafting tables, spilling over with blueprints, are tucked into every corner of the hallways. The noise of saws and sledgehammers, somehow imperceptible on the gaming floor, is pervasive.
Even in the administrative wing, hardhats are never far from reach, looped over coat racks and stowed on bookshelves behind nearly everyone’s desk.
Taskmaster of great proportions
On a construction tour of the casino last week, Sneed made a stop over in the new 600-seat buffet, stepping around paint buckets and drop cloths, dodging men on ladders and weaving through a mine field of flying sawdust from table saws.
He excitedly started talking about the grand opening of the buffet just two weeks away without a hint of hesitation or flicker of doubt. It would all come together quite quickly, he said, not at all bothered that the flooring still wasn’t down, dining room tables were no where in sight, let alone finishing touches like napkin dispensers.
“We haven’t delivered anything late so far,” Sneed said.
Execution of the construction project was critical, and the tribe wasn’t leaving it to chance. True to form, the tribe once again proved its capacity for foresight by hiring two of its own contractor liaisons. Their job: ride herd on the construction crews, make punch lists, double check work against blueprints, even scout for the best pricing on interior fixtures.
Harrah’s corporate, with a lot riding on the expansion as well, sent two of its own experts in construction oversight.
“Because of the size and the scale, we wanted to make sure the interest of the tribe was represented in the performance of the work,” Sneed said.
There were 50 to 60 subcontractors working on the job at any given time. Sneed set up shop smack in the middle of the contractor’s encampment, a field of 20 trailers across the street from the casino that served as the central nervous system of the expansion.
As Sneed strolled through the buffet still under construction last week, he pointed to newly installed light fixtures that were the wrong kind and need replacing.
“We saw those and thought, ‘Those don’t blend very well with the architecture. Is that right?’” Sneed said. “So we had to go back and compare it to the drawings.”
The tribe switched contractors part way into the project, parting ways with the crew initially hired for the job over what Sneed referred to as “some mix-ups along the way.” Turner Construction, a century-old company and one of the largest in the country, was brought on. It was a good move, Sneed said.
“You are hiring that company because of their resources, but also their credibility. They have a reputation to protect in the industry and so they aren’t going to screw something up and leave it,” Sneed said.
A maze of construction
Most people would need a road map, if not a handheld GPS, to find their way through the maze of construction corridors and work zones, accessed to those in the know by slipping behind black curtains or ducking through the many “no-entry” doors pocking false walls on the gaming floor.
“It’s confusing. You could easily get lost on this project,” Sneed said.
But not Sneed. He knows the project like the back of his hand, a three-dimensional map of the blueprints seared into his mind.
For the directionally challenged, the casino has maps for hotel guests. Navigating the gaming floors, eateries and retail concourse is tricky enough without adding in the complexity of trekking there from one of the hotel towers and back.
But to steer the majority of guests, way-finding signs are mounted overhead, designed by an expert in such signage brought in a consultant.
“When you have a building this size, you have to make sure way finding is clear cut,” said Sneed. “It is so enormous, people have to understand clearly how to get out of this building in case something ever happened.”
At regular intervals on the casino floor, there are large interactive signboards, akin to a digital version of a shopping mall key, for resort guests to find what they are looking for and how to get there.
Getting lost isn’t the only problem. Getting around is too, especially for the older population of gamblers who make up the large part of Harrah’s customer base. They don’t have the mobility to make long treks.
“If you’re staying in hotel tower one and your favorite game is in Mountain Breeze, you are going to walk about a mile,” Sneed said. “It is a challenge.”
The solution: layover points to stop and rest and visually pleasing elements along the way.
“We designed it with a sense of journey so that as people make their way through, you have this or that to catch your eye and look at,” Sneed said.
It might be a group of sofas by a fireplace, artwork inlayed into the tile floor or balconies overlooking the gaming floor. A collection of sky bridges means players never have to go outdoors.
Londo said the casino is breaking industry norms with the lounging areas. For years, consumer psychology experts preached against places to loiter, warning that it is best to keep people on their feet browsing and shopping.
But Darold Londo, Harrah’s Cherokee general manager didn’t subscribe to that school. The casino was just too big for older guests not to stop and rest.
“It’s a haul for anybody, but if you are challenged getting around ...” Londo said.
Londo also cited insight from his current bedside reading, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. The author’s studies of consumer habits found lounging areas are not, in fact, detrimental to sales.
In coming weeks, the casino plans to deploy a fleet of golf carts to shuttle people back and forth to the hotel towers similar to those used in an airport. It also rents electric scooters.
Harrah’s hotel towers are the only structures west of Asheville in the state that are equipped with seismograph detectors. Hemmed in by mountains on a landlocked reservation, Cherokee had little choice but to build up.
“We shoehorned it all in,” Sneed said. “We couldn’t take a horizontal site and expand out. We had to think vertical.”
It’s obvious from the outside — with the soaring hotel towers and parking decks. But it also influenced the basic layout inside. A giant 600-seat buffet overlooks the gaming floor from a mezzanine, while a large 3,000-seat concert venue sits above it on the second floor. The stacked layout called for dozens of elevators and escalators.
The site limitations came at a price.
“We spent millions developing the site to accommodate an expansion this large,” Sneed said. “We went through literally months of blasting everyday getting through solid rock.”
Ultimately, construction called for nine retaining walls, including a 75-foot “soil nail” wall, the largest in the South. There was $1 million on a dewatering system for the parking garage. Another $2 million for federal stream mitigation to work around a creek that courses through the middle of the sprawling casino property.
Site work was the only portion of the construction that faced delays or cost overruns, a nasty side-effect when dealing in the unknowns of what lies below ground.
The project, once finished, will undoubtedly be a towering symbol of the tribe’s progress, a fitting monument to how a once persecuted people have bootstrapped themselves into the single largest player in the region’s economy through foresight and vision.
“It is going to attract an entirely different clientele. This isn’t just a daytrip casino any more,” Sneed said. “There’s a legacy in this also. We want to build something the community is proud of.”