By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation is known as being the biggest economic engine in western North Carolina. Since the advent of the casino, government jobs and retail has expanded at an incredible rate. The Tribe has not only put more people to work on the Boundary, we have provided jobs throughout the southeast. The power of the tribal dollar has been felt all the way to Washington, DC.
The tribal government has been able to service tribal members with better housing, healthcare, educational opportunities, child care services, elder care services, and programs for the chronically ill and dependents. We have built a new school that is the envy of the state and a hospital that visiting North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said should be the model for hospitals across the country.
Every tribal member has the opportunity to supplement their family income with a per capita payout every six months (some reject the casino generated dollars as a matter of religious conviction). Members begin accruing monies from the “per cap” at birth. All monies are divided equally, regardless of blood quantum or age. So, an infant is rationed the same amount each payout as an elder, and a 1/16th blood quantum member will net the same as a “full blood”.
There seems to be plenty of money to go around.
One of the reasons for the great success of the casino is that the Tribe decided early on to let the experts do what they do best. The management team for the casino was tasked with and given the tools by the Tribe to craft strict management and employee policies to ensure that clients got the level of customer service needed to entice gamblers to the Boundary. This team knew the design and structure needed to lure those clients in to spend on a grand scale.
Another big reason for its success was that the tribal leadership was willing to take the financial risk…a well-calculated, but big financial risk. The initial loan to build the casino was approximately $93,000,000 (in 1994 dollars). While the management company supported and eventually took responsibility for the loan, the Tribe had some liability for the debt.
One report stated that the tribal budget pre-casino was in the $10 to $20 million range. Current tribal budgets are over $200 million. Additional hundreds of millions were expended on expansions, like hotel towers and a satellite operation in Murphy. Quite a financial success story by anyone’s estimation.
Looking back at historic documents and research papers, even though the monetary success was great, public support for the casino was not. There was a major campaign waged by some who felt that there were not just moral issues to consider, but public safety and health issues. Many felt that bringing gambling to Cherokee would cause major issues like increased alcohol issues, drug abuse, prostitution and organized crime. There were calls for a referendum on the issue of gaming that were not entertained by the Tribal Council of the day. Negotiations regarding the casino were not open to the public, so many of the decisions were made by government leaders without consultation with the people. Many of the tribal leaders responsible for getting the tribal gaming compact and eventual first casino were either voted out of office (only 2 of the 12 council members returned to the community seats in the 1995 election) or resigned under the threat of impeachment. In 1996, the tribal attorney, chairman of the TCGE and even the editor of the Cherokee One Feather were fired from their positions because of their alleged roles in the establishment of gaming in Cherokee.
My point is that, even if your intent is good and your cause worthy, keeping the community in the dark is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, the research was sound and the management was good with regard to the revenue projections for the casino operation from year to year. Tremendous good has been provided to our people as a result of the Tribe’s gamble back in 1994. But, it was a gamble none-the-less.
And, I believe, because of the way that the casino was acquired, the people are so much more distrustful of government that a repeat with any other revenue or diversification campaign is highly unlikely. An example is the push to have Tribe-wide alcohol sales and distribution a few years ago. The people insisted on a referendum vote on the issue. Efforts were put forth to explain the economic advantages to the proposal. Tribal officials got on the agendas of community club meetings to espouse the potential benefits and the safeguards that would be put in place to reduce abuse. Yet, with all the assurances of the government with regard to economic impact and protections, and with Jackson County approving alcohol all the way to the doorstep of the Qualla Boundary, the people voted hand’s down to ban alcohol from any other locations (tribal members voted several years earlier in a referendum to approve alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee).
I believe that we, as a tribal government, are not doing enough to engage the communities in the decisions that are made with regard to municipal and economic development projects. The key to growth and prosperity for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation lies within the grasp of the people. We have hundreds of dedicated individuals, tribal members and non, who are working diligently to engage and diversify the Cherokee economy so that when (not if) gaming begins to decline due to economic trends or more competition, that we will be able to continue to enjoy the benefits that come with a strong revenue stream…new and better health and education opportunities, housing support, per capita payments, etc.
We must include the people in every decision affecting their future. Yes, we elect officials to represent us and to serve us, but that does not mean that it is okay for us to go to sleep and not voice our direction when it comes to decisions that will impact our present and our children and grandchildren’s future. It needs to come from all of us, even if it means three or four referendum questions on every ballot. We need to be educated on all the issues surrounding proposed projects. For example, “What will an investment in an Adventure Park or Bowling Alley generate in revenue and municipal services?”; “How will the language and culture benefit from allowing alcoholic beverages to be served in restaurants and special events venues?” Tribal leadership needs to communicate more answers and we need to be asking more questions.
I think we, the Cherokee people, have a strong and bright future. But, it is up to us just how bright that future will be. I have heard many places and from many people, even from a representative in Council, that it takes money to make money. And, I know that money is an essential catalyst, but along with money, we need educated, well-strategized decisions. We also need to know the people who are working for us, making those decisions are people we can trust. That comes with getting to know those people and transparency in tribal dealings.