By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Cherokee County should soon see a much-needed economic boost to their area. Tribal Council voted 11-1 to build a casino on a tract of trust land in the county which has one of the highest unemployment rates (13.5 percent as of Feb. 2013) in the state.
With a construction budget of around $110 million, the casino will be around 50,000 square feet and will have 1,100 gaming machines, 30-40 table games, a food court, and a 300-room hotel.
A temporary facility will be built and open within six months of breaking ground. The full facility will be open 18 months after the groundbreaking, and the temporary facility will be converted to a storage facility at that point.
Tribal Council Chairman Jim Owle noted, “I think it is a great opportunity.”
He praised the work of the members of Tribal Council and Principal Chief Michell Hicks on the recent changes to the Tribal – State gaming compact that paved the way for a second casino operation by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“I think this will be a great opportunity for Cherokee County and for Graham County, and the Snowbird Community, for job opportunities.”
Chairman Owle concluded, “I think it’ll be a great opportunity for this Tribe. I think it will be a great business venture for this Tribe.”
Cherokee County – Snowbird Rep. Adam Wachacha remarked, “It’s an economic impact for that area whose unemployment is one of the highest in the state. It opens up doorways, for the Tribe as a whole, to create new resources. We have some shortfalls within the school and the hospital; not to the point of being detrimental, but to the point to where we notice it. So, to create new sources of revenue, in something that we do really well being gaming, I believe that’s the way to go.”
Birdtown Rep. Tunney Crowe commented, “I think it’s a great economic opportunity for the Tribe.”
He said due to budget cuts and sequestration of federal funds, some programs including the school system will be dealing with budget issues. “This will be a great opportunity for the Tribe to open up that casino and generate more revenue to help all of these programs out from the young child all the way to the elder’s programs.”
Big Cove Rep. Bo Taylor said he was on the fence about the issue for some time. “The main thing we have to keep in mind is that our tribal government’s needs grow every year…so, every year we are always increasing and now we have the sequester which will affect our education, our medical, those are the two main ones, but it affects every aspect of the Tribe.”
He said the school was looking at a deficit of at least $1.5 million and possibly as high as $2 million. “We were looking at this issue of ‘where are we going to get this money?’ We’re not going to get it through a water park. We’re not going to get it through the levy. We have to find a way to bring in the money that is needed, and we do know gaming. I feel like we are very good at it.”
Rep. Taylor said he believes the casino in Cherokee County will help strengthen the Tribe financially. “As a Tribe, we have to learn to take care of ourselves. We know the federal government is not going to take care of us, and if we don’t do something, who will?”
The TCGE Board worked with The Innovation Group to set up some projections on the project, and based on those per capita would increase $579 in the first year and $694 in the second. The Board held informational meetings on the casino idea in the various communities over the past few months.
At a meeting held in Yellowhill in February, TCGE board member John Houser called the casino “a really strong opportunity for the Tribe” and said it would create between 500-800 jobs.
Adele Madden, Harrah’s Cherokee director of finance, previously said that the project will generate around $177 in gaming revenue the first year and over $200 million in the sixth year. She said the cash flow that would be used for distribution and debt reduction – after the cannibalized figures, management fee and capital withholding is taken out – would be over $50 million for the first year and close to $58 million in the sixth year.