Eastern Cherokee seek to enter commercial gaming

File photo: This Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 photo, shows a parcel of land that The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has reached an agreement with developer Steve Johnson to develop and operate a casino on a 350-acre tract in Washington County, near Bristol, Va.. (Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

Joseph Martin

Hopes put on competitive bidding process for license

With the success of off-reservation casinos by many tribes, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is hoping to expand its gaming to an off-reservation venture in Bristol, Virginia. The proposal hinges on passage of legislation to legalize casino gaming in Virginia and the Eastern Cherokee being granted a license. It would be a commercial casino, outside of the confines of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the tribe’s compact with the State of North Carolina.

The proposal comes on the heels of the tribe’s opposition to the Catawba Indian Nation’s efforts to establish gaming near Charlotte, N.C., outside of their lands in South Carolina, and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe proposing a facility near Richmond, Va. along with a proposed Hard Rock property, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, also in Bristol.

The proposal has led to criticism of both the Eastern Cherokees and The Pinnacle, the retail development operated by Steve Johnson, with whom the tribe would be a partner.

Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy speaking on behalf of the competing Bristol Resort and Casino, who is partnering with Hard Rock, accused the Eastern Cherokee, in a statement, of trying to cut out competition. “We can’t help but believe that the Cherokee don’t want us to compete with them against their very successful Cherokee, N.C. casino, and Steve Johnson does not want 50 retail stores and restaurants operated by Hard Rock to compete with his Pinnacle operation.”

McGlothlin and Stacy have also suggested that the tribe doesn’t actually run its gaming, citing the management agreement with Harrah’s, a subsidiary of Caesars.

Neither McGlothlin nor Stacy could be reached for comment.

Greg Habeeb, who is representing the Eastern Cherokee in Virginia, said that the tribe manages its casinos. The only Caesars’ employee is the general manager. “The Cherokee have run and managed that property for many years now. If given the opportunity, the Cherokee would own and operate the facility.”

Habeeb said the statement is misleading. “We understand why people in the competitive process would put out misinformation. It is an unbelievable resource. This has nothing to do with protecting any other casinos.”

The Eastern Cherokees are hoping to amend the bill to include a competitive process, where the tribe is banking on its success and location just across the Tennessee border with an interstate exit nearby to win a license to operate a casino in the commonwealth. Habeeb expects a competitive bidding process to be put in place. “I think it’s extremely unlikely that more than one casino would be granted a license,” he said.

Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha is on board with the proposal, and he said most of the council is behind it. “I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent. The majority are with it. They need more information and numbers.”

The project is still in its infancy, and details about distribution to the tribe still aren’t known, but Wachacha said the property could increase the diversity of its revenue sources. “It’ll sustain everything that we have that we’re not so dependent on Indian gaming. The main thing is to sustain the revenue that they get.”

The Eastern Cherokees’ tribal council also approved plans to purchase land near Sevierville, Tenn., and it also awaits Senate approval of a bill to turn land near Chattanooga, Tenn. into trust status for the tribe. The Bristol proposal could fuel rumors of casinos in East Tennessee, as the tribe’s land purchase has. Habeeb said that’s something that would require a change in Tennessee’s constitution. He said the tribe has no plans to pursue gaming in Tennessee. “Gaming is not happening in Tennessee any time soon.”

Principal Chief Richard Sneed couldn’t be reached for comment, but he has issued a statement and addressed the issue in a Jan. 31 commentary to the tribe’s newspaper, The Cherokee One Feather. “At this point the commonwealth of Virginia has a bill before them to grant commercial gaming licenses to operators in five Virginia cities. Following the introduction of this legislation, a study was commissioned to determine best practices and future steps for Virginia to enter the commercial gaming market,” he states. “I am pushing for this legislation to be amended to include that competitive bidding process and that the Virginia legislators consider the (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’) Aboriginal connection to the region, which was also suggested by the (study). I ask for your continued support as we advance this effort, and I look forward to reporting back to the community as this effort progresses.”

Principal Chief Richard Sneed
Principal Chief Richard Sneed (Photo courtesy of Principal Chief Richard Sneed’s office)

Sneed said, “I have visited the site along I-81, and I am impressed with its strategic, gateway location that serves a five- state area. It is our wish to bring new tax revenue and jobs to Washington County and the Southwest Virginia region in a positive and impactful way.”

Wachacha said that he has seen a lot of support in the communities he represents, particularly to tribal members who have been to college or are going to college. “I think we can manage a lot of these properties with our own members.” They also liked diversifying revenue, he said. “We’re thinking outside the box.”

Sneed continues to oppose Senate Bill S790. Introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the bill proposes to allow the Catawbas to establish trust land in North Carolina for a casino. Sneed said in another Feb. 15 statement to the One Feather. “We discussed details (with federal lawmakers) as to why we believe there is no legal pathway for the Catawba Nation to take land, which the (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) can demonstrate are historical Cherokee aboriginal homelands, into trust in North Carolina.”

Sneed asks that tribes follow federal law. “The (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) does not oppose fellow federally recognized tribes from moving into the gaming industry. We do, however, oppose tribes from using legislation to bypass the regulations set up to assist federally-recognized tribes, regulations that we and all other tribes must abide by.”

Habeeb said that some kind of bill is likely to pass in Virginia, but more changes are to be expected, especially as debates over tax rates and other proposed amendments come up. Wachacha said that regardless of the outcome, seeking to diversify the tribe’s revenue sources is a good thing. “It was worth looking into.”

Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C. and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

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