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Opening day draws a crowd to new Murphy casino

fr casino2Mary Anderson didn’t have much time to stop for an interview. It was just after 1 p.m., and the Atlanta resident had been up since 6 a.m. in her quest to experience opening day at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy. With the purple-and-white ribbon freshly severed at the door of the new casino, Anderson was on a mission — press through the crowd and get playing as quickly as possible.

“Oh my god, look how beautiful that one is,” she said, barely pausing to admire the bright lights of one the casino’s 1,000 slot machines through a dark window. 

Within minutes of the ribbon cutting, the gaming floor was abuzz with guests intently playing blinking slot machines, the scent of the first smokes to be lit up in the new facility and cheers and groans from blackjack tables. 

But the line to get in, which had stretched around the building and out of sight toward a 2-mile backup of vehicle traffic on U.S. 74, didn’t disappear quite as quickly. Cars kept pouring in, with a crew of yellow-vested event managers still controlling traffic for hours after the opening.

Chief-Elect Patrick Lambert of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who worked as executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission for 22 years before retiring and running for office, surveyed the scene happily from the lobby.

“This is great,” he said. 

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“It’s a great thing for the tribe and a good thing for this region,” agreed Jim Owle, who stood nearby. Owle served on Cherokee Tribal Council from 1999 to 2013 and is now a board member with the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise. 

For years, the Murphy casino has existed only as a concept, a possible way to draw more customers from urban centers like Atlanta and Chattanooga. The construction itself has been two years in the making, with the massive effort to hire and train the 1,000 people required to run the casino and hotel taking most of this year. For tribal leaders who have been part of the cycle of planning, praise and criticism throughout the casino’s path from idea to reality, the Sept. 28 opening was a momentous occasion. 

“I’m pretty fired up about this venue and this day,” General Manager Lumpy Lambert, a tribal member, told the crowd of dignitaries gathered for the kick-off of opening ceremonies at 11 a.m. The group included everyone from Cherokee’s elected leaders to representatives from the offices of North Carolina’s U.S. congressmen to the global president of Caesars Entertainment, Harrah’s parent company. 

“There’s a lot of excitement in the air,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “You can just feel it. God blessed the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.” 

“You just know it will do phenomenally well,” said Tom Jenkin, global president of Caesars Entertainment. “Caesars is very proud of the relationship we’ve had with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for the past 18 years.”

“I’m extremely delighted and proud to present this $110 million project,” agreed Brooks Robinson, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, which will work in tandem with the new casino. 

The ribbon cutting gave tribal leaders a chance to take a breath and step back to watch things start ticking, but the day was just beginning for Harrah’s employees. They’d spent months learning and training, and now the big day was here. It was set to be a marathon, both for them and for the upper management of Harrah’s Cherokee. 

Leeann Bridges, vice president of marketing for Harrah’s Cherokee, was already planning to spend the night at the hotel, prepared to keep working “until I get really irritable and people tell me to go to bed.” 

But she wasn’t complaining. This day had been a long time coming, and she was mostly just excited, ready to tackle the challenges and see how the adventure would unfold. 

“The enthusiasm is contagious,” she said. “Everyone is so happy this day has come.”

She was talking about Harrah’s staff, but the same could be said for the customers outside before the ribbon cutting, some of whom had been standing there for hours.

“I’ll be back,” said Janie Fields, 72, of Cummings, Georgia. “I don’t care about no ribbon. I just want to get in.”

Fields had driven up with a group of five people, all of whom were excited to try the games and enjoy the prospect of a gambling opportunity a little closer than Cherokee. 

Diane Davis, a Robbinsville native who now lives in Athens, Tennessee, shared Fields’ excitement about the casino’s proximity. 

“A lot of folks in Tennessee want to come here,” Davis said. 

The line wasn’t stocked solely with out-of-towners. Many were from Western North Carolina. 

“We’re going to play for a while and see how it goes,” said Dan Gaucher, from Bryson City. “What pays the most (between the Cherokee and Murphy casinos) is the one we’ll go to.”

Gaucher isn’t the only one who will be waiting to “see how it goes.” As far as revenues, customer base and effects on the Cherokee facility, tribal leaders and Harrah’s staff will have to stay tuned. But optimism is in the air. 

“There’s always going to be critics in the works, but you know what?” Hicks said. “I’m proud.” 

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