The town of Cherokee in western North Carolina has about 2,000 people. There are a few strips malls, a museum dedicated to the history of the tribe.
And there’s a casino. It’s a really big casino that’s getting bigger.
The casino is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and managed by Harrah’s. It towers 21 stories above the town, and there’s more coming. There are 700 new rooms under construction along with 83,000-square feet of convention space.
The tribe is spending $330 million on the expansion, says tribal chief Richard Sneed.
“It’s a big number,” he said laughing. “It’s a big number.”
With so much money at stake, he’s at the center of a feud with two other tribes, in part over the possibility of more casinos coming to North Carolina. The biggest fight is with the Catawba Nation of South Carolina, based in York County.
The Catawba had its own groundbreaking last spring for a casino across the border in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.
The Cherokee have sued the Department of the Interior to stop it, and a federal judge has agreed to fast-track the litigation for early next year.
The Eastern Band's argument is that the Catawba Nation is getting special treatment, and the casino would be built on Cherokee ancestral land.
“We’ve made these strategic business decisions based on the laws and regulations that are in place,” Sneed said. “And now the rule book is being thrown out the window for the Catawba tribe. But it still applies to us. It still applies to every other tribe who wants to expand their gaming territory.”
In 1993, the Catawba signed a settlement agreement with the state of South Carolina. The tribe received $50 million, and, as part of that, agreed not to have gambling, so long as the state prohibited it.
And South Carolina has continually said no to gambling.
So the Catawba looked to a six-county “service area” in North Carolina, where Catawbas can receive federal benefits as those who live on the official reservation. Cleveland County is part of that service area.
“So after that failure, there was a new tactic,” Sneed said. “Which was to move into North Carolina.”
The Catawba casino has divided North Carolina’s politicians. Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory opposed the project, along with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper— and numerous legislative leaders, like Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger.
But their hands are tied.
The state’s two Republican U.S. senators – Thom Tillis and Richard Burr – support the Catawbas' Kings Mountain plan. South Carolina developer Wallace Cheves of Skyboat Gaming, who is part of the Catawba development team, has given thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican National Committee, as well as more than $30,000 combined to groups supporting Tillis and Burr, according to NC Policy Watch.
The Department of the Interior had initially opposed the Kings Mountain project but reversed its position last year.
Sneed that because “because of politics, the rulebook is thrown out.”
He added: “What happened in this instance is what’s commonly referred to as ‘reservation shopping.’ Where you have a developer who will go find a tribe and say, we’ll put up all the money, we’ll do all the leg work. And once we get the casino approved, we’re in for a percentage of the profits. That’s essentially what’s happening there.”
The Eastern Band operates two casinos in North Carolina – one in Cherokee, and another in Murphy, 60 miles away.
And despite a proliferation of gambling across the nation, the Cherokee casino is the closest place for full table gambling like poker and craps for people in Atlanta, Charlotte, Greensboro, Charleston and Knoxville, Tennessee.
“They’ve had a monopoly, and obviously competition is good. It gives choice,” said Howard Stutz of the CDC Gaming Reports in Las Vegas. “But they don’t want it. “
He said the Catawba casino near Charlotte would siphon off a large part of North and South Carolina from the Eastern Band, whose Cherokee casino generated nearly $400 million in revenue in 2018.
And the Georgia state legislature is considering legalizing gambling next year.
“I think the bigger danger for the Cherokee is Atlanta,” Stutz said. “If Georgia comes around and legalizes a casino, that could really cut into their business.”
The Catawba Nation has a little more than 1,000 acres on two tracts of land, near Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Chief William Harris sat in his conference room there, showing off plans for the Two Kings Casino in Kings Mountain, which — barring the litigation — would open in a temporary facility in the second half of 2021.
The temporary casino will start with all slot machines, and expand to table gambling as part of a $270 million full buildout.
“The idea is when it’s all said and done, we’re going to start out on 17 acres that will morph into a 60-acre resort,” Harris said.
He said the Kings Mountain location is close to perfect.
“Charlotte alone — it isn’t shrinking,” he said. “It just keeps growing. So the Charlotte metropolitan area? You could easily survive just off of that.”
His casino will be decided on the outcome of the lawsuit. But Harris said that when you look at the history of the tribe, his ancestors lived across the Carolinas.
“Our aboriginal land base was almost all of South Carolina. Half of North Carolina. And into Virginia, southern Virginia,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Cherokee appears to have notched one victory this year.
The tribe opposed federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe, whose members mostly live on the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, many in Robeson and Scotland counties.
Federal recognition would have meant federal money for members, and possibly a casino about two hours east of Charlotte.
Sneed, the Cherokee chief, said the Lumbee recognition would have meant fewer resources for the Cherokee and other tribes.
He says he doesn’t believe they are a real tribe. He said the tribe failed such questions as:
“Have you had a historic relationship with the federal government? Have you had any treaties? Have you maintained governance over your people as a tribe? Things of that nature,” Harris said.
Before the election, President Trump promised to work for federal recognition for the Lumbee. But the Lumbee chief wrote a glum message on social media this week. He said he had a heavy heart because no Indian tribal recognition legislation was included in Congress’s most recent spending bill and that “we were not successful.”
Copyright 2020 WFAE. For more go to WFAE.org