CHEROKEE, N.C. (MCT) – Over the last decade, this sovereign nation on the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been undergoing an economic transformation.
Once a depressed area with high unemployment and poverty, the Qualla Boundary, homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has experienced unprecedented growth thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars it reaps each year from its hotel and casino.
A $633 million project to expand Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel is under way, making it the largest lodging facility in North Carolina.
Outside the casino, the tribal council has been working to attract more retail opportunities, including a possible water park, Principal Chief Michell Hicks said.
Earlier this year, the tribe agreed in a controversial decision to lease land to Walmart in Swain County, N.C. It recently opened a women’s dialysis center and a twin-screen movie theater as tourism-driven commerce spreads on the eastern side of the Smokies.
Sequoyah National Golf Club, an 18-hole golf course located off Highway 441, opened Sept. 1.
“They are trying very hard to bring things that will attract families,” said Teresa Anders, co-owner of Kid Zone, an hourly drop-in day care that caters primarily to casino guests.
“There are so many things new, not just in Cherokee, but the surrounding counties. There’s been more activity in the last four years than the last 20,” Anders’ husband, Bobby, added.
Nevertheless, commercial development in Cherokee pales in comparison to its East Tennessee counterparts, in part because of accessibility and geographic challenges.
“We don’t have flat land like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg,” Hicks said. “We’re proud of what we’re able to offer. We’re expanding the horizon.”
A growing attraction
Since opening in 1997, the casino has served as an economic engine that has pumped new lifeblood into the once impoverished area.
Nearly $2 billion has been generated in gaming revenue in 11 years, filling the tribe’s coffers to fund schools, health care centers, law enforcement and other services. The casino provides nearly 2,000 jobs with an average annual salary of $52,000.
Minus a management fee of 5.5 percent, half of the profits go to help operate the tribal government, while the other half is doled out to individual members of the tribe twice a year. Each tribal member in 2008 received $8,779 from casino funds. Children under 18 who are tribal members have the money put in a trust fund.
That amount is only expected to increase with the prospect of alcohol sales at the casino, which was approved by referendum in June. It will mark the first time liquor is sold legally on the reservation, though limited to the casino. Some estimate the decision will double per-capita checks within five years.
“It has really raised the standard of living for us. When you get that kind of additional income, it goes back into the economy,” said multimedia artist Davy Arch, whose family once farmed the land where the casino stands.
Last year marked the first time the casino saw a decline in revenues, dropping to $243.9 million from $252.9 million. In January, it had its first layoff, cutting 100 jobs.
Tribal leaders insist, however, that the casino is weathering the economic storm. They continue to expand and make improvements to the 37-acre property that they say will be perfectly positioned when the economy rebounds.
Despite the downturn, the casino has received 60,000 phone calls from tourists who wanted to visit the Smokies gambling destination but were turned away because of a lack of available rooms, said Darold Londo, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee.
The expansion project, expected to be completed in 2012, will add a 532-room tower, bringing the hotel’s total room count to more than 1,100. It will include a new entrance and lobby as well as a 16,000-square-foot full-service spa.
Construction on a 3,000-seat event center is underway and will allow for the booking of world-class entertainers who officials said previously wouldn’t come because there wasn’t a large enough venue.
The casino will be renovated, nearly doubling the size of its floor to 150,000 square feet from 88,000 while increasing the number of games to more than 5,000 from 3,400. Six retail shops and six restaurants will also be added.
Cherokee, not China
The casino draws around 3.5 million visitors a year, making it one of North Carolina’s top tourist attractions.
But some say that doesn’t translate into dollars for area small businesses.
“The casino doesn’t bring us more people. In fact, it probably does the opposite. Their goal is to keep people in – 3.3 million go in there, but not a lot come out,” said Leon Grodski, co-owner of the shop Tribal Grounds Coffee, which opened in August 2004.
There’s a different clientele that comes to the casino versus the mountains, said Darlene Waycaster, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
“Some want to experience the culture of Cherokee Indians and the surrounding mountains and attractions like rafting, tubing and hiking. Those who want to come to Harrah’s won’t. They stay in the casino all day and night,” Waycaster said.
Natalie Smith, a tribal member who co-owns Tribal Grounds Coffee with Grodski, said the tribe needs to capitalize on its natural surroundings.
“As a business owner and someone who lives here, I see our biggest asset is our environment and then our culture. We need to focus on these things. They’ve made strides, but we’re still lacking in the outdoor area,” she said.
The community has benefitted from a resurgence of traditional Cherokee culture.
While roadside shops continue to hawk their fake American Indian wares, locals say they are trying to get away from such “shot glass” tourist attractions, focusing instead on authentic Cherokee history and heritage.
“The tribe is spending money to create a nicer experience that’s more culturally oriented and authentic. The goal is to move away from the touristy trinkets from China,” Groski said.
After the park opened, people from other places were attracted to the area by the lure of tourism and its financial prospects. The tribe, in need of money, allowed them “to market their junk.”
“They wanted any kind of business they could get. We weren’t generating revenue to support the infrastructure,” Arch said, noting that there’s more tolerance and acceptance of the Cherokee culture today.
“Things are looking up. We have more control of our destiny now than the last couple hundred years. It’s changing.”
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