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Per cap numbers indicate faltering casino revenues

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has offered a sports betting lounge since March 2021. Harrah’s photo Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has offered a sports betting lounge since March 2021. Harrah’s photo

The most recent per capita distribution numbers indicate flagging revenues at the two casinos operating on Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lands in Jackson and Cherokee counties.

The December payment will come in 14.1% lower than the December 2022 distribution, with the combined June and December distributions for 2023 8.6% lower than in 2022. 

All tribal members receive these per capita payments as shareholders in the tribe’s casino enterprise. They’re not a perfect reflection of casino profits, as the number of shareholders is slightly different at each distribution, but they’re a good indicator.

After taking a hit in 2020, per capita distributions surged in 2021 and 2022, with the 2022 total 23.8% higher than the total just three years earlier in 2019. While both 2023 distributions came in higher than 2019 distributions, they were worth less when factoring in inflation and lower than the corresponding payments released in 2022.

These results contrast with the American gaming industry as a whole, which this year saw the best third quarter on record, according to the American Gaming Association’s Commercial Gaming Revenue Tracker . The total is up 6.1% year-over-year and represents the 11th straight quarter of annual revenue growth.

However, the downturn in per capita payments aligns with regional tourism trends. After seeing jawdropping tourism revenues in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, this year tourism agencies across the region are seeing a decline, said Jackson County Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Nick Breedlove.

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Inflation, the potential for a recession, increased interest rates from the Fed and more travel choices as the world reopens post-COVID have all played a role, he said. Jackson County budgeted for a 10% decline in revenue this fiscal year. So far this calendar year, revenues have fallen about 7.2% compared to last year.

“All in all, we’ve maintained market share pretty well, not just in Jackson County but in the mountain region,” he said. “A lot of my colleagues I’ve talked with are experiencing the same trends, which is really positive considering all those external factors I mentioned affecting travel, period.”

The forces shaping travel trends in Western North Carolina are different from those shaping travel to the large cities where many commercial casinos are located. Large cities tend to depend on convention business to fill their hotel rooms, Breedlove said.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos in Cherokee and Murphy are also facing additional pressures, in the form of increased competition.  

New casinos now have temporary facilities up and running in Kings Mountain near Charlotte and Bristol, Virginia. The Catawba Two Kings Casino in Kings Mountain opened in July 2021 and currently offers 1,000 gaming machines and a sportsbook, while the Bristol Casino — Future Home of Hard Rock opened in July 2022 with 900 slots, 29 table games, two restaurants, a bar and a sportsbook.

Both casinos are working to finish more impressive permanent facilities. The Bristol casino aims to open its new facility in summer 2024, while Catawba Two Kings is in a more complicated situation. In December, the National Indian Gaming Commission issued notices of violation to the Catawba Nation and developer Sky Boat Gaming, saying that Sky Boat had too much ownership control and authority over the project. The Catawba Nation is now working on a deal with Sky Boat to gain back control and satisfy NIGC requirements before it proceeds with a planned $700 million casino resort.

Meanwhile, the EBCI is working on an expansion of its own. In September 2022, ground broke on a $275 million project at the Valley River Casino in Murphy that will double the size of the existing hotel and add 25,000 square feet to the gaming floor, a 1,700-stall parking garage, 12,000-square-foot rooftop restaurant, indoor pool and fitness center. That project is scheduled to be complete in early 2024. The tribe is also involved in numerous other business enterprises aiming to diversify its revenue streams. These include casinos in Danville, Virginia, and Elizabeth, Indiana, a horse racing track in Kentucky and a series of Sports Illustrated Resorts branded destinations.

While per capita amounts have historically been publicly available, this may be the last time that happens, Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in a Facebook post Nov. 2. The tribe is working to develop an online portal that will house information about per capita payments and tribal finances, accessible only to tribal members.

“As we navigate the changing landscape in gaming around us and move forward with new ventures, Tribal leadership aims to remain fiscally responsible while protecting the tribe’s resources,” Hicks said.

Representatives for Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos, Bristol Casino and Catawba Two Kings Casino declined to answer questions for this story.

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