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Cherokees Open $82 Million Casino in Smokies
By Charles Flowers(First of a series)
CHEROKEE, N.C. - The last of fall colors blazed unto these hills through sheets of rain as pilgrims poured into the latest mecca for casino gaming to hit Indian Country.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is betting millions that this $82 million casino - built in partnership with Harrah's Entertainment on trust land - will hit the jackpot.
So, too, were at least 8,000 tourists, with license plates from Georgia, Tennessee and points more distant, who began arriving at 5 a.m. on opening day, Nov. 13. They stood in the drizzle for a chance to plunk their dollars down at the electronic slots. Their cars and campers choked Highway 19 and U.S. 441 - the only routes in and out of Cherokee - until even the casino promoters cried "uncle" and asked that customers put off a trip here at least until the crowds thinned.
No dealers. No alcohol. No matter.
"Out there tonight, my heart felt it was going to burst with pride because we have a class-act facility here," said Joyce Dugan, principal chief of the Cherokees as neon lighting crackled overhead in this machine-filled barn, signaling another winner and causing the gamblers, mostly middle-aged men and women from the nearby mountains, to dig a little deeper and stare a little harder at the spinning numbers on the slots.
Not all Tribal members shared the chief's enthusiasm for the new casino.
"I'm not selling out who I am," said Richard Crowe, 70, also known by his Cherokee family name Sutaga. "If I accept casino and gambling here, that's what I'm doing. I'm selling out."
Dugan and the Tribal Council are hoping the proceeds from Harrah's, billed as the only casino between the Choctaw Reservation near Jackson, Miss., and Atlantic City, N.J., will upgrade the economic fortunes of some 11,700 enrolled Cherokees. That's why they passed it over the objections of Crowe and other members of the Eastern Cherokee Defense League, who had demanded that the issue be put to a vote of the entire Tribe. It was no dice. There were only two dissenting votes to the measure approving the Harrah's deal when it passed the 14-member tribal council.
Tribal Council Chairman Dan McCoy argued that since a Tribal casino had been operating on the reservation since 1995, there was no need to get the whole Tribe's approval for this expansion, which more than doubled the number of gaming machines, to 1,800, and stretched the operating hours to 24.
The fallout from that decision has left some Cherokees skeptical, and concerned about their cultural heritage, while others are happy to have the revenues from gaming.
The Cherokees joined a growing list of Indian tribes, including the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which have opened casinos or gaming operations on reservations in more than half of the United States in the decade since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Some 25 states, not including Florida, have entered into pacts with 190 tribes.
However, according to Tim Wapato, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, these numbers obscure the hard financial facts that only a handful of these casinos, perhaps 5 percent, are really profitable. And some, including a casino operated by the Lummi Nation of Washington state which closed its doors this August, have failed.
Still, the economics continue to attract tribes like the Cherokee who are looking for new sources of revenue. The numbers have also attracted the eyes of state and federal regulators concerned the Tribes might be succeeding too well.
"There are people who are trying to forestall tribes getting gaming," Wapato said. "We have a lot of battles ahead of us."
One such is the continuing legal battle between the Seminole Tribe and federal authorities over gaming. That intensified in July when a U.S. attorney in Tampa district threatened to close Tribal gaming operations, and the Tribe appealed to U.S. District Court. Meanwhile, Tribal casinos in Tampa, Brighton, Immokalee and Hollywood remain open, pending the outcome of that appeal.
Chief Dugan said immediate benefits to the Cherokee include a new, centralized day care center, a trauma care center, and a $3 million renovation to the Cherokee museum. Additionally, each Tribal member will receive a $2,000 cash dividend this year.
In contrast to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which recently upped its monthly dividend to $2,000, the Eastern Band is keeping a closer grip on the gaming profits, directing more of the proceeds to Tribal projects. The casino's profits are projected to reach $50 million next year. Dugan and the Council face another battle over per capita payments.
This, of course, assumes that the Smokey Mountain Casino is profitable. According to the Carlos Tolosa, head of Harrah's Indian Gaming Division, that is a safe bet.
"That's the beauty of these operations," Tolosa said. "You can tell within three days how it's going to do." Smiling at the crush of first-timers on Day 1, he added. "This is doing fine."
Harrah's has agreed to manage the casino for five years. The Tribe maintains ownership. The Cherokees also announced plans to carve a 12-story, 200-room Carlton hotel into the mountain behind the casino, to accommodate the increased tourist traffic.
With two-thirds of the casino's 900 employees Tribal members, Harrah's casino instantly became the reservation's biggest employer, overtaking the Tribe itself, and luring some employees away from other jobs with better per-hour offers.
"Now I'm in competition with the Tribe, the federal government and Harrah's for employees," said Nathan Robinson, nephew of Winifred Tiger, who operates the El Camino Hotel adjoining the casino. Robinson was able to raise room rates and stay full during a normally slow time of year. So he was not complaining too loudly.
New casino employees said jobs start at $6.50 per hour, and for those with some supervisory responsibilities, pay averages $2-$3 more per hour than other employers on the reservation where seasonal unemployment runs nearly 50 percent.
"If I wasn't working here, I wouldn't be working," said Joanne Crowe-Toineth, as she checked coats by the entrance. "In November, it used to be a ghost town around here."
Although there is a strong Cherokee presence among the workers, no employees are permitted to gamble at the casino. Some workers think that is a good thing.
"A lot of our people were gambling," said Henrietta Sampson, a guest safety officer at the casino, and a Tribal member. "When you get a job here, you can't do that. Another thing, we have a drug test. So people who wanted to work had to get off drugs." She also noted that some of the younger Tribal members were getting in better physical shape by walking around the large gaming hall, serving soft drinks and re-setting machines.
"You can see it on their faces, they're not used to being on their feet."
Despite the direct - and even indirect - benefits, some Cherokees are staying away from the biggest new game in town, fearing they could lose more than money. At a sparsely attended craft show in the high school gymnasium the day of the grand opening, elder Richard Crowe and others vowed to hold on to their culture by boycotting the casino.
"This is not Indian," Richard Crowe said slowly. "This is not Tribe. This is gambling."
Note: Grand opening events continue at the Smokey Mountain Casino through December with concerts by the Drifters, Platters and Coasters set for Dec. 26-30. For more information call (704) 497-7777.
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