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New casino to expand professional opportunities, financial security for Cherokee

fr casino3In the words of Principal Chief Michell Hicks, it’s been “a whirlwind year” for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

In December, the tribe cut the ribbon on a 96-bed jail and justice center. A new community center for Painttown opened in August, and the tribe’s new hospital will open next month. This week, Cherokee celebrated another important milestone — the opening of a $110 million casino and hotel just outside of Murphy. 

“At the end of the day (self-sufficiency) is our goal, and I think we’re well on our way,” Hicks said. 

Since opening Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee 18 years ago, the tribe has seen a huge influx of profits, allowing the EBCI to expand services and build infrastructure ranging from schools to sewer. For 2015-16, the tribe is working with a $558 million budget, the bulk of that revenue coming from the casino.  The new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy is expected to increase profits, broadening the customer base by drawing in guests from a wider geographic area and providing a closer option for people traveling from urban centers like Chattanooga and Atlanta. 

“Obviously, that’s another revenue stream to the resort in Cherokee that funds all the programs for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” said Lumpy Lambert, the new casino’s general manager. “From that standpoint, it’s an opportunity for us.”

With each passing generation putting more people on the rolls as tribal members — current enrollment sits at around 15,000 — demand for existing services will increase. And as the tribe seeks to solidify its status as a sovereign nation, so will the list of services it looks to provide for its people.  

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But Cherokee’s incoming leadership — freshly elected Principal Chief Patrick Lambert and Vice Chief Richie Sneed will take office Oct. 5 — cautions that the new casino doesn’t mean the tribe will have extra cash to spend right away. The casino cost $110 million to build, and the tribe still owes more than $550 million for the $633 million expansion of the Cherokee casino it completed in 2011, Patrick Lambert said. 

“I think the tribe has to start looking at paying off the debt and get a savings built up, just for the inevitable competition,” Patrick Lambert said.

The Catawba Indian Nation in Kings Mountain currently has an application submitted to build a casino, and changes to Georgia gambling law have spurred multiple companies to express interest in building one in Atlanta. Patrick Lambert’s view is that the tribe needs to build up a cushion from the casino revenues streaming in now to prevent devastation in case of a competition-induced shake-up in profits. 

Sneed agrees. 

“The objective is to get it (the debt) paid off as quickly as possible,” he said.

Brandon Jones, who represents Snowbird and Cherokee County on Tribal Council, added that economic uncertainty is also a factor in the need for healthy savings. When the bottom dropped out in 2008, he said, the tribe would have been in real trouble if it wasn’t able to add revenue from alcohol sales at the Cherokee casino — the facility was dry until 2009. 

“Anything can happen with the economy, and gaming is totally based on that,” Jones said. 

Once the debt is paid and a cushion built, tribal leadership can start thinking about where to put the extra revenues, Patrick Lambert said. But the casino’s impact on the tribe won’t be limited to dollars and cents. Career opportunities are a big part of what the new casino will provide. 

“It’s a clean slate,” said Leeann Bridges, vice president of marketing at the new casino, “so someone who comes in and has ambition of rising through the ranks, they have an opportunity to come here and take advantage of everything.” 

In Cherokee, all those top slots at the casino are filled, so advancement is dependent on the retirement of people currently holding leadership. The Murphy casino is still in its infancy, giving talented tribal members another outlet to prove themselves professionally without having to move away from the Qualla Boundary. 

When it comes to opportunity, Lumpy Lambert is one such success story. He started his tenure at Harrah’s as a casino operations manager, steadily moving up in the ranks to become the first Cherokee tribal member to manage a Caesars Entertainment property — “a local kid that made it big,” as Sneed said. Having a second casino on the Qualla Boundary will only expand those sorts of opportunities. 

“I think it’s a beautiful facility,” Patrick Lambert said. “People in Cherokee County should be proud of the new business opportunities, the new jobs created.”

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