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As the Eastern Band of Cherokees Exand Harrah's, Principal Chief Candidates Shift Focus to Diversification


Call it a clash of priorities. Last month, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation and Caesars Entertainment, Inc. celebrated the first phase of the Cherokee, North Carolina Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel’s five-year, $650 million expansion.

Even amid the hoopla, however, the Cherokee’s principal chief was taking flak for his tribe’s management of the lucrative gaming house—this as he runs for public office at the height of the tribal campaign season.

The July 7 primary is approaching, and current Principal Chief Michell Hicks is vying for his third four-year term against at least four candidates, reported the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Chief Hicks, the tribe’s former finance officer, is stressing his fiscal leadership and focus on paying off the tribe’s debt within the next four years, reported the Smoky Mountain News on May 11.

As a certified public accountant with 23 years of tribal service, Hicks maintains that he is primed to continue bringing the nation to its feet. “I’ve helped bring us through the worst economy we’ve ever seen, and the tribe is doing great,” he said.

But criticism is flying over relying on Harrah’s and its profit distribution. Half of the casino’s earnings are allocated evenly among tribal members, while the remainder funds tribal operations.

Gary Ledford, the tribe’s public safety director, also running for office, is worried about depending too much on casino revenue. “At very great financial risk, we’ve put all of our eggs into one flimsy non-double-weave basket,” he told the Smoky Mountain News. “We have effectively turned our back on the small businessman by focusing all efforts on the casino, in a declining casino market. You have to—not should, have to—drive down your debt, build your cash reserves and eliminate or postpone unnecessary expansion projects.”

Hicks’s former assistant, Juanita Plummer Wilson, who also ran in the last primary, is making another go for the principal chief seat. Echoing Ledford’s sentiments, she expressed reservations about rash spending and the casino expansion. “There seems to be very little planning in how we’re spending money, even to develop, even to expand the casino,” said Wilson in the Smoky Mountain News.

But expansion efforts, approved by the tribal council in January 2007, are rapidly progressing, with completion expected by 2012. The tribe’s renewed contract with Caesars grants Harrah’s North Carolina Casino Company, LLC, a subsidiary of Caesars, the exclusive right and obligation to develop, manage, operate and maintain the casino operation, according to a tribal press release. The tribe and Caesars first signed an agreement in June 1996.

“I know we’ve taken great risks, but we’ve also seen great rewards,” said Hicks at a May 20 celebration for the extended relationship and completion of the first phase of expansion, reported Cherokee One Feather. “Our decision was to make sure that we kept up with the market.”

The Southeast’s largest current hospitality expansion project, according to Harrah’s, features a casino floor nearly doubled in size, a third hotel tower, a luxury spa and a new 3,000-seat events center, as well as new hotel and casino parking garages and food and retail outlets.

But to compete with Las Vegas–style venues, the casino needs table games. “I’d like to think that we would offer a full-service casino experience,” said Harrah’s General Manager Darold Londo, reported the Smoky Mountain News on May 25. “With our proximity to Atlanta and Charlotte and Knoxville, where you have people that fly to other places to play those games, if we offered those things they could come to Cherokee instead.”

Harrah’s is currently limited to electronic gaming by the state, although the tribe continues to lobby Gov. Bev Perdue to allow live card dealers. Negotiations for live dealers and table games stalled last year when a video poker company filed a lawsuit against the state. The company claimed that the governor could not legally negotiate the tribe’s gambling freedom.

While Hicks also advocates diversifying, his dedication to expanding the powerhouse casino appears unwavering. “The Eastern Band of Cherokee is continually trying to impress upon all elected officials and state leaders the importance and value of an expanded gaming enterprise,” Hicks said in statement.