Dynamite rotunda comes to life at Harrah’s Cherokee casino

fr rotundaHarrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel never had an entrance that made visitors stop and say wow — until now.

Recession rebound: turnaround in progress at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

After inching its way back from recession-driven declines during the past year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel is back in the catbird seat.

You could even call it a Royal Flush. The advent of live dealers and table games coincides with a $633-million transformation of the casino into a rollicking resort.

All hands on deck: live gaming approved by state

coverAfter nearly a decade of negotiations and broken promises, the state finally approved an agreement that allows table games with live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

The Eastern Band has worked since the early 2000s to get the state’s John Hancock on a live gaming compact, and now, it’s just a matter of weeks before the longtime dream comes to fruition.

Fate of live dealers hinges on state House

The quest to bring live table games to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino faces a final political hurdle.

Both the Governor and N.C. Senate have given live table games their blessing, with the N.C. House of Representatives now the lone hold-out.

Harrah’s Casino is limited to video-based gambling only. Adding live table games like roulette and poker would attract a new clientele of player, and in turn more money and jobs flowing through the entire region, according to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“We aren’t going to see a big influx of industry coming in to Western North Carolina, so we have to do what we can to ensure we have economic development,” said Rep. Roger West, R-Marble. West sees the casino, which could employ more than 2,000 if it gets live dealers, as a key economic pillar that spins off in the region.

Whether the Eastern Band has the requisite votes to get the measure passed is unclear at the moment, however. But West is hopeful.

“I think the votes are there. If they aren’t, it is just a matter of getting them,” said West, who represents Macon, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties.

However, many of the House legislators who are opposing live dealers cite moral and religious grounds, and convincing them to relinquish their convictions in the name of economic development might not be easy.

“My opposition stems from my longstanding belief that state sanctioned gambling has a corrosive effect on our society,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the good the casino has done in the region outweighs any negatives.

“I remember the days before they had Harrah’s — it has brought a whole lot of prosperity to the Eastern Band,” Haire said.

Haire said the jobs provided by Harrah’s are significant, not only the salaries but the health insurance. And Haire personally enjoys going to the concerts at Harrah’s major performance venue. He saw Diana Ross recently, and is headed to see Natalie Cole this weekend.

Haire hopes Cherokee’s casino operation won’t be held hostage to personal ideology.

“I think some people want to put a moral tag on it, but nobody makes you go to Cherokee to gamble. It is all voluntary,” Haire said.

Rapp was willing to go along with live table games for the existing casino campus, since gambling was already going on there. But Rapp is not comfortable with the prospect of Cherokee opening more casinos in the region on their land holdings.

The deal initially inked with the governor would have permitted Cherokee to open more casinos anywhere on land holdings it owned currently.

However, in an attempt to assuage legislators uncomfortable with expansion of gambling onto some of Cherokee’s more recently acquired holdings, new language was added. The new language limits the Eastern Band to a max of four more casinos, and they can only be built on land under the tribe’s domain as of 1988 — making newer land acquisitions off the table.

Live table games passed the senate last week by 33 to 14. All four state senators from the mountains voted for it: Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin; Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine; Sen. Tom Apadoca, R-Hendersonville; and Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

The tribe has hired lobbyist Steve Metcalf, a former legislator from Asheville, to shepherd live table games through the General Assembly. Metcalf declined to comment for this article.

A vote could come as early as next week. If it doesn’t come, it could be a bad sign.

“You never go to a vote unless you have the votes,” West said.

The General Assembly will only be in session for about six weeks.


Education fight resolved

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to reach where it is now. In an historic agreement signed with Gov. Bev Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would grant live dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

While Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

The Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money.

A compromise was reached that places the money in a special “Indian Gaming Education Revenue Fund.” The General Assembly can tap the fund at will — so it does put legislators hand in the till — but they have to hold a special vote to get money out. Otherwise, the money will be disbursed quarterly to school systems across the state based on their student body population, and can only be spent on “classroom teachers, teacher assistants, classroom materials or supplies, or textbooks.”

Logjam broken on live dealers for Cherokee, but not a done deal yet

A political impasse over live dealers and table games at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has been resolved, but the tribe still has some heavy lifting to go before it can close the deal.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians needs the blessing of both the governor and state lawmakers to add live dealers and table games. The tribe offered to give up a cut of gross gaming revenue to win the needed support.

While Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money. It’s up to members of each General Assembly to craft the state budget each year as they see fit, regardless of instructions left behind by previous lawmakers.

For its part, the tribe preferred that the state’s cut of casino revenue be directed to education as well.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said it was admirable of the tribe to choose such a worthy cause for casino revenue, but it’s simply not possible to make those kind of promises.

“I think it is totally appropriate for the Eastern Band to express their wishes for where the money goes, but the General Assembly cannot determine for future General Assemblies where money goes,” said Davis, the state representative for the seven western counties, including Cherokee.

Based on letters written between the Republican leadership in the General Assembly and Perdue in recent months, each blamed the other for holding up Cherokee’s live dealers. The dispute underscored a longstanding source of acrimony between Perdue and her Republican counterparts over education funding.

It appears Perdue eventually gave in, according to a recent version of the live gaming deal.

New language in the proposed deal acknowledges the wishes of the governor and the tribe to see the state’s cut of casino revenue go to schools. But it likewise acknowledges that “the General Assembly is not bound” to spend the money for education. It will simply go into the state’s general fund instead.

Perdue seems to have extracted a promise that at least for the next couple of years, however, the casino money will go to education. But there are no guarantees after that.

“Gov. Perdue believes that the state’s revenue from the new compact should be used for education, and we are confident that will be the case for at least the next two years,” according to a statement from Chris Mackey, Perdue’s press secretary.


Other hurdles not yet cleared

While one logjam has been broken, the tribe still faces a challenge in mustering the necessary support to pass the General Assembly.

The tribe is actively lobbying to get the number of votes needed to bring bona fide live dealers and table games to the casino. On the Senate side, things are looking good, according to Davis.

“I think we have the votes in the Senate. I have been working really hard to get those,” Davis said.

It appears to be much closer in the House of Representatives, however — perhaps too close to call right now.

“Some people were concerned it might be another Las Vegas,” Davis said. “There are some people who have real ethical principles against gambling.”

One of those is Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has been torn over the issue.

Rapp is against gambling for the social ills it causes. For some, gambling is simply a form of entertainment and recreation. But for others, it is an addiction.

Rapp voted against the state lottery several years ago and has been public enemy number one against the video gambling and video sweepstakes industry, leading the charge to outlaw the digital gambling terminals.

“Many of the people who are playing these games have little or no disposable income. They are taking away from their family’s basic needs, food and housing money, to gamble,” Rapp said.

Rapp had resigned himself to the casino’s presence in Cherokee and was willing to support the addition of live dealers there — but only there.

“If they were going to stay in those confines of the existing campus, I would be fine. They already have gambling there, so I could support that,” Rapp said.

But the deal brokered with the state would have allowed live dealers at any new casinos built by the tribe in the future on other tribally-held lands in Jackson, Swain, Graham or Cherokee counties.

“This wasn’t permitting it in place, but was allowing an expansion,” Rapp said. “That brought me up short.”

Specifically, Rapp was concerned about a tribally-owned tract of land near Andrews that is being eyed by the tribe for a small-scale casino — something less than a full-fledged casino but something slightly more than a bingo hall.

There has been movement to amend the language in the compact with the state to limit live dealers to gambling facilities on land held by the tribe prior to the mid-1980s — not tracts it has added to trust lands in more recent years. But that still may be too much of a blank slate for some legislators. If the vote was held today, it’s not clear how the final count would come down.

“It will be a very, very close vote in the House with both Republicans and Democrats voting against it,” Rapp said.

Davis said lawmakers might be a little more flexible after this week’s primary election is behind them.

Davis said while he personally doesn’t gamble, his Libertarian streak doesn’t think the government should over-regulate and limit free enterprise. He also is eager for the economic boost live dealers may bring.

“I think we need to do everything we can to enhance the economic climate in the western part of the state,” Davis said.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino currently is limited to video-based gambling. The tribe has touted the economic impact of adding bonafide table games and real cards.

It would attract more guests — those of a different caliber and demographic than its core base of players today — which in turn will mean 400 more jobs and an economic boost for all of WNC.

It will also mean more money for the tribe, which uses casino proceeds to fund social programs, education, health care and other services for tribal members, as well as a twice-annual personal check for each of the 14,000 members of the tribe.


Years in the making

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to get to this point. In an historic agreement signed with Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would allow real dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

Perdue’s office is putting a positive spin on the prospects of passing the measure before she leaves office in November.

“We are comfortable that all of the issues around the agreement will be settled in time for the General Assembly to pass the appropriate legislation this year,” Mackey said in a statement.

Cherokee signs deal with Governor to bring live table games to Harrah’s

After years of lobbying and months of hard negotiating, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sealed a deal with Gov. Beverly Perdue this week to bring table games, real cards and live dealers to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

“It has been along hard process,” said Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks. “With any negotiation you are going to have doubts but at the end of the day we kept pushing.”

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal.

The addition of table games will mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“Lots of people claim their huge economic impact and you can kind of see it if you squint and tilt your head the right way — but with these guys you can probably see it from outer space,” said Stephen Appold, senior research associate with the UNC-Chapel Hill business school, who authored a report on the casino’s driving economic force in the region.

The tribe is still one step away from final success, however.

The tribe needs the General Assembly to ink the deal. The General Assembly is out on winter break, aside from a brief return to Raleigh this week to take up pressing issues that couldn’t wait. The deal with Cherokee was supposed to be one of those issues, but Perdue is at odds with the Republican leadership in the General Assembly over the state’s cut of revenue off the new table games.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

Republicans balked this week at quick-signing the compact, saying they need more time for review. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, said the GOP-dominated General Assembly simply didn’t have adequate time to read and review such a lengthy document.

“I regret we weren’t able to vote on it this session,” Davis said. “But for the Governor to drop this in our laps without giving us a chance to read it seems shortsighted.”

Hicks said the tribe isn’t worried that the deal will fall apart, but merely sees it as a delay.

“It is frustrating but I am pleased we have progressed to the extent we have and I am confident in the very near future it will be approved,” Hicks said. “We’ve taken a giant step forward.”

Hicks, the vice chief, half a dozen tribal council members and a delegation of advisors from within the tribe and hired lobbyists spent the first part of the week in Raleigh getting the gaming compact signed by the Governor and pushing the General Assembly to take it up.

While the General Assembly doesn’t officially reconvene until May, Hicks hopes legislators will return to Raleigh soon to decide on the bill.

“We truly hope we don’t have to wait for May,” Hicks said.

The region desperately needs the jobs and the state desperately needs the revenue. Calling a special session of the General Assembly during the off-season to take up economic development isn’t unheard of. The state did it to approve incentives for Dell Computer several years ago.

“We are like any other company or organization. We feel if we are creating jobs, we should have our Governor and legislature get behind us,” Hicks said.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done to prepare for table games, and the tribe and Harrah’s aren’t wasting any time.

“As of yesterday the planning process was rolling,” Hicks said Tuesday.

Table games must be bought, space made for them on the casino floor, and an army of dealers must be hired. The hiring and specialized training of the casino dealers will be the lengthiest part of the process.

Hicks said the timeline for the roll out of live table games will be laid out within the week.


A delicate dance

Ultimately, Cherokee is giving up a share of its revenue on the new table games to secure the state’s approval. How much revenue has been a chief issue in the negotiations. The tribe also wanted a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory.

The two issues were linked at the bargaining table. Cherokee offered up a bigger piece of the pie if the state would promise to keep other casinos out of the rest of the state.

The state would only agree to a relatively small exclusive territory, however, and settled for a smaller share of revenue as a result.

Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

This helps Cherokee in the early years after rolling out table games, when the tribe is still paying-off its start-up costs for the games and realizing their potential.

As for exclusive territory, Cherokee got less of what it wanted. The state would only grant exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville.

Written correspondence between the tribe and the Governor’s office over the past four months paints a picture of their respective positions, and the compromises they arrived at as negotiations played out. Neither side would talk about their positions during the deal making, but letters between the two provide a surprisingly candid storyline of where the parties stood.

Only in retrospect are the tactics and bargaining positions of the tribe truly apparent.

“We knew where the stopping point was. Again in any negotiation you have to have a starting point and a stopping point. We knew how far we could push and how far we could be pushed,” Hicks said.

Those decisions were made in concert with the vice chief and tribal council, Hicks said. Cherokee drew on its history of more than 300 years of experience negotiating deals with other governments, “not all in our favor,” Hicks pointed out.

But in this case, the gaming compact is fair to both parties, with neither trying to take advantage of the other, Hicks said. Hicks said the tribe is pleased with its deal.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

That amount is sure to increase with the addition of live table games.

Until now, the casino has been limited to digital video gambling machines. Despite the handicap, the Eastern Band of Cherokee has catapulted to the forefront of WNC’s economy.

The approval of live table games comes just in time. The tribe is nearly finished with a $633-million expansion of the casino that remade the property into a destination resort.

When the tribe embarked on the 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.

The expansion has already proved its worth, even without live table games rounding out the picture. Revenue peaked at Harrah’s Cherokee in 2007 before the recession began to take its toll. Profits have been on the rise since 2010.

Casino General Manager Darold Londo predicts Harrah’s Cherokee will return to its pre-recession levels by the end of next year — even without the addition of table games.

“That’s quicker than the industry,” Londo said, crediting the Cherokee expansion project. “The industry doesn’t expect to recover sometime until 2014 or beyond, whereas we expect to hit that sometime in 2012. We’ve had the ability to control a little bit more of our own destiny.”

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.”

A rising tide lifts all boats: Per cap doesn’t make anyone rich, but it can change your way of thinking

Every year, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians get around $6,000, give or tax a few hundred here or there. In 1995, it was $1,190. In 2010, it was just over $7,000. It’s their cut, 1/28,890 of the net revenues at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, where the profits are divided 50/50 between operations and tribal members.

In the grand scheme of life, $6,000 is not an extravagant amount of money. When words like billion and trillion flash daily across headlines — numbers so big that even to grasp their breadth seems nigh upon impossible — $6,000 is a raindrop in the Pacific.

But Freeman Owle knows that $6,000 is more than that, really. Six thousand dollars is a powerful thing. It can open new vistas of opportunity and raise self esteem and change the face of an entire culture. And maybe buy a decent used car or a semester of college.

Owle has seen the tribe and the reservation change with the money — known locally as per cap, short for per capita — and for the better in nearly every way.

“I can’t see it as anything but good,” said Owle. He grew up here, then spent 13 years teaching in the Cherokee School System before heading over to Western Carolina University to teach there. He knows Cherokee, knows the people, and the change he’s seen from just this little bit of money is demonstrable.

SEE ALSO: Casino a catalyst for re-discovery of Cherokee power

SEE ALSO: New Cherokee Home Center fills a void

“I’ve seen more difference made in the self concept realm,” said Owle. When he was a kid, he said, keeping your head down was the order of the day.

“Before, they were just unobtrusively observing everything around them,” said Owle. In this post-per-cap world, his students and the ones coming after them, they’re engaging with the world instead of just watching it.

It’s hardly difficult to see the advantageous benefits of the casino in Cherokee. Brand new schools, brand new skate park, brand new, well, lots of things. But the benefits on an individual level are a slightly more difficult to track and quantify.

It’s easy to say that 473,000 square feet of new school is beneficial. But how do you measure the benefits of self esteem, or financial assurance?


Behaving successfully

‘Medically’ might be one answer.

Two long-term studies, one published in 2003 and one just this year, have studied the effects of per cap payments on the Eastern Band and its people.

The first was a Duke study looking at behavioral patterns in children. It was purely coincidental — researchers were looking at kids with problems acting out in school, and then, right in the middle of the study, something seemingly unrelated happened: the casino opened. And per cap checks started flowing freely.

Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up, because really, a few thousand bucks isn’t exactly a life of leisure — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.

“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”

The second study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last May, was a follow-up to the first. So things were better for kids when their parents had that little extra income security. Would that persist for those children as they transitioned into adults?

The answer, apparently, is yes.

“The most important aspect of this follow-up into adulthood is to demonstrate that an intervention occurring in adolescence can predict outcomes in adulthood,” said the study results, which is a scientific way to say that the benefits of per cap grow with time.

The kids who did the best, who were most positively affected in the long-term by the change in their family income, were the youngest. The longer they were exposed to the new, per-cap norm, the less likely they would slip back into substance abuse and all the adult problems that grow from childhood misbehavior.

Per cap, however, like every good story, is not a tale filled only with sweetness and light.

There is a downside, and it manifested itself brazenly for years before the tribe could develop a good response.

That shortcoming, of course, is obvious: you can’t make people do good things with their money. And for 18-year-old tribal members, getting the money that’s been saved and invested for them, often since birth, was an invitation into enticing irresponsibility.

“We have 13 years of 18-year-olds getting money and wasting it, and there’s been a lot of bad stories about young people not knowing what to do with their money,” said Keith Sneed. He is the one who, in the end, engineered a way to at least try to keep the newly enriched from moronic financial choices.

Sneed, like Freeman Owle, was a teacher in the Cherokee School System for years before per cap. And like Owle, he saw the lot of the tribe change dramatically in its wake. But, he thought, it could be so much better. Sure, kids now know that they have opportunities, he said, but if they only opportunity they see is a Porsche they really can’t afford, how is that better?

So he created a course called Manage Your Money that’s now a requirement — along with a high school diploma or GED — for anyone wanting to collect their cash at 18.


A better life

In a broader sense, said Principal Chief Michell Hicks, what per cap and its companion, the tribal operations cut, have done is increase the standard of living for the Cherokee people. They have better schools and health care and recreation because of tribal operations, and they have nicer homes and stronger businesses and more solid financial footing because of the extra six grand in their pockets.

“I think, you know, any time you can change the living standard, it changes to some degree their mental capacity and it gives them more confidence to do better,” said Hicks.

After 16 years, the tribe has gone a long way towards improving the basics of life, and now, said Hicks, they’re moving on to the next stage of growth with their wealth. The tribe can preserve its culture in language schools and museums and foundations because it can afford to. More Cherokee people can open new and nicer businesses in town because, thanks to per cap and tribal lending funds like the Sequoyah Fund, they can afford to.

And that’s where Hicks sees the tribe going in the future. Of late, there has been much talk of moving some of the eggs away from the Harrah’s basket. Casino revenues were down 8 percent this year and tribal population grew by 2 percent, so the amountof money in everyone’s pocket is shrinking.

But what about using the spoils of Harrah’s to decrease dependence on it, asks Hicks.

“I think that the next success is to really expand the economic base for Cherokee,” said Hicks, to get away from what have been called rubber tomahawk shops and get into the higher-end shops and restaurants. And to use per cap and tribal funds to do it.

Inez Sampson has been around since far before the payments started coming in. She, like many, believe that it helps.

“You can’t really buy a house or anything,” said Sampson, “but it helps. It helps you be able to do the things that you’d really want to do.”

And to realize that they’re there to be done.

Casino a catalyst for re-discovery of Cherokee power

Casino dollars, and lots of them, have brought the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians newfound clout this past decade, from the legislature in Raleigh to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“It has put us at the table,” Larry Blythe, the tribe’s vice chief, said in a blunt assessment of the tribe’s political transformation since Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened in November 1997. “I would say that we’ve always been recognized and listened to as an important tourist destination. But the political influence — we didn’t have the influence we have now.”

With gaming money came the benefits of being able to attract and hire the state and nation’s top lobbyists. Money also brought tribal leaders the ability to wine and dine state and national leaders when needed to try to influence votes and shape perceptions.

Gone are the days when Cherokee could ill afford to even send its leaders to Raleigh, much less to visit leaders in the U.S. House and Senate. Before the casino, Blythe said, the hard work of individual Cherokee leaders to build political bridges was hampered by being money-poor and, perhaps more importantly, by the perception of Cherokee and its people as politically insignificant.

“Lobbyist can open doors, and we can truly now step through them,” Blythe said. “And we can go en masse, and we can go in force.”


Bridging Indian and white

Sara Waldroop lives in Franklin, but she keeps a close eye on politics in her home community of Cherokee. She is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band, and the 74-year-old never misses voting in tribal elections. Waldroop was formerly the director of the board of elections in Macon County, and she now serves as chairman of that county’s election board.

You could accurately say that given her professional background, Waldroop’s political perceptions are a bit more honed than many. These days, for the most part, she likes what she sees — a principal chief, Michell Hicks, who has financial acumen (he once served as the tribe’s finance director) re-elected for yet another term, and a tribe that doesn’t shy from taking a leadership role in the region.

SEE ALSO: A rising tide lifts all boats

SEE ALSO: New Cherokee Home Center fills a void

That’s a far cry from the situation Waldroop remembers growing up, when Cherokee families such as her own lived paycheck to paycheck, running credit tabs at one of the two stores in that area. Her father worked for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and they lived in Ravensford and later in Smokemont Campground. Her grandfather was white (Major McGee, who grew up in Big Cove, spoke fluent Cherokee and who proved instrumental in reconstructing Mingus Mill), her grandmother, Cherokee. Waldroop, of the Yellowhill community, found herself with pretty much with an equal stake in two worlds, Indian and white.

She went to school in neighboring Bryson City. Waldroop doesn’t particularly remember there being notable differences between the Cherokee children and their white classmates. No overt racism, no particular distinctions made by adults. Then, as now, Cherokee children were not a novelty in Swain County’s school system, or in neighboring Jackson County. Besides, Waldroop said, no one had much money — Indians or whites. And that created a commonality that transcended race. Everyone was of the mountains, and no one had dollars to spare.

“I don’t think we had it any harder than anyone else,” Waldroop said. “So we didn’t think that much about it (any differences).”

Waldroop believes the addition of the casino, overall, has been good for Cherokee.

“It’s another world from what we had back in the 40s and 50s,” she said, adding that Cherokee tribal members actually seem more aware these days of their culture, and take real, visible pride in being Indian. When the casino was being built, some tribal members openly worried that Cherokee would lose its unique cultural identity.

Instead, Waldroop said, “the casino, I think, has really helped.”


Bridging white and Indian

Growing up at about the same time, storyteller and all-around regional personality Gary Carden was experiencing the flipside from Waldroop. A white kid from Jackson County, Carden washed dishes at the bus station in Cherokee for then manager Winona Digh, later Winona Whitetree.

“That was the best deal around, $12 a week,” he noted. “I remember coming into town in the early morning fog and seeing Fess Parker wading across the Oconaluftee with Buddy Ebsen. They were filming ‘Davy Crockett.’ A lot of Cherokees got steady work with the Disney’s film crew and some of them traveled to Mexico for the Alamo scenes because Disney felt that they looked like Mexicans. I later recognized some of my friends in the Mexican army that invaded the Alamo.”

It would be hard to over-emphasize the economic importance of tourism in those days, and “Davy Crockett” and the and the lure of real live American Indians helped draw the crowds to this remote corner of the Smokies. Stereotyping was rampant.

“Every day, I sat on the bridge with these Cherokee kids and our favorite thing to do was to watch the tourists,” Carden said. “We’d never seen them before. They were in Studebakers and Henry J’s. We sat out on the bridge and played this silly game where we tried to see the most exotic license plate — New Jersey, Minnesota. But most were from a 100-mile radius.

“They would sometimes pull up and stop, and of course I was this little white kid sitting there in the middle of all the Cherokee. They consistently thought the Cherokee couldn’t speak English. The drivers would roll the window and they would say ‘You got teepee?’ making a teepee motion with their hands. And to the girls, ‘You got papoose?’ and they would take our pictures. Little by little it caught on, and enterprising Cherokee gave them sheet-metal teepees and some of the girls brought their little brothers tied in a bed sheet.”

What developed was a strange new economy based on tourism and faux American Indian culture that was good each year for six months only.

“When the tourists left it was dead in Cherokee, but it created a tourist-oriented economy,” Carden said. “And of course, they had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to stimulate that economy, and they did it for so long they forgot who they were. Today they are trying to go back to their authentic Cherokee culture.”


No longer reliant on tourists

David Redman helped develop that critical Cherokee tourist trade. A white man, he worked in Cherokee travel and tourism for years, starting in 1988. Like Carden, he saw the limitations of a local economy totally dependent on tourism.

“Unemployment was high in the region for decades, with Swain County reaching the 30-percent level,” Redman said. “It was even higher on the reservation. Prior to the casino, the tribe was probably the strongest tourism destination west of Asheville. However, the tourism season lasted between five and six months (May through October) with employees being laid off until the beginning of the next season.”

Pre-casino, the Cherokee experienced overt discrimination in the region and beyond, Redman said.

“Employees in the tribal program I managed would often complain that area businesses would not accept personal checks and that they were treated differently than non-Indian customers,” he said. “I would take my staff to a Christmas breakfast, sometimes to Pigeon Forge, other times to the Dillard House or Grove Park Inn. Customers’ eyes were on us, and there was a definitely feeling of coolness.”

That said, being white in Cherokee then wasn’t always easy, either.

“How was a white man working for an Indian tribe being accepted?” Redman said. “First, with a huge amount of distrust — a shipload of distrust. Trust between the white and Indian isn’t immediate and mutual. I felt that I had the trust of some Indian co-workers only after five years or more.”     

The casino has changed that. Racism certainly still exists here as it does everywhere, and stereotypes of Indian culture live on, too. But the casino, a vast and hungry employer of the region, has helped further mix white and Cherokee. Both work in the managerial ranks, and in a large corporation such as Harrah’s, hard work is the way to climb the corporate ladder.

Cherokee scholar John Finger, a retired professor from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the author of several books and academic writings on contemporary Cherokee culture, said he started paying attention to the tribe in the mid-1970s. The changes, Finger said, have been profound.

“I’ve seen the tribe become more economically prosperous, the end result of both the tourist and gaming industries. They seem much more in tune with modern American business and life.”

Like Waldroop, Finger believes the casino has actually strengthened and deepened the Cherokees’ ties to their culture, “making them more aware of their status as Indians, particularly Cherokee Indians.”

And, even as tribe members’ cultural awareness has awakened, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has emerged as a potent political and economic force for all of WNC.

A witness to the Cherokee renaissance

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a resilient, independent spirit. When the U.S. government forced the majority of the tribe to head west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, those who remained were the defiant ones, and it is their offspring who now form the nucleus of the tribe. It is these Native Americans who are using the profits from what was originally a controversial casino to help rediscover their cultural identity.

Prior the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band were a poor tribe with little influence. Tribal members who lived in Cherokee struggled to make a living in a tourism-dominated economy. Because there was little industry and because the region was so isolated, the area around Cherokee, Swain and Graham counties perennially topped the state in unemployment, averaging around 25 percent for many years when the state first started keeping statistics.

Much of that changed with the coming of casino profits. The tribe found itself with a newfound wealth and power. What’s noteworthy in this transformation is how that money has been used to invest in Cherokee and its people, when it could have gone to line the pockets of only the most powerful.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation might be the most notable symbol of this transformation. The Foundation was created as part of the second gaming compact with the state in 2000, and it has funneled millions of dollars into cultural, historical and economic development projects on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding region. Those investments include the Cherokee language immersion program, a Native American art institute, helping restore rivercane for traditional basketmaking, investing in traditional Cherokee arts such as metalsmiths, making broadband more available in rural Western North Carolina and dozens of other worthwhile projects.

The tribe itself has built a new school that uses green technology and celebrates tribal traditions, invested in health care and public safety, and is teaching its youth how to wisely manage the per capita payments they receive from casino profits. It also helps each of its high school graduates pay for college. Men and women who work for the tribe earn good wages and benefits.

In other words, the tribe is investing in itself, its people and its traditions. When you talk to members of the tribe today, the pride in what is happening in Cherokee is obvious.

There are still problems in Cherokee, just as there are everywhere in this country. But over the past decade those of us who live here have witnessed a resurgence among the Eastern Band that surpasses what most thought possible when gambling was first approved. They’ve used the casino profits wisely, to say the least. That’s a credit to the Eastern Band members and its leadership.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.