Michael Weaver – Carolina Public Press
The business of casinos is transforming some areas of Western North Carolina and creating jobs, but that may be a mixed blessing at best.
On a casino floor approaching the size of three football fields, the roulette tables and slot machines are open for business 24 hours a day.
Last year, 4 million visitors passed through the doors to the casino, to its 1,000 hotel rooms and to its 24-lane bowling alley and concert venue. Another 1.4 million visited Harrah’s newer Valley River Casino & Hotel in Murphy, which opened four years ago.
While the Cherokee tribe and the region have benefited economically from the casino dollars, some are concerned that it’s taking attention away from the culture and history of the Cherokee people.
Nonstop tourist traffic
The tour buses crank up their engines before dawn. Eager travelers wait in lamp-lighted parking lots for their air-conditioned rides to pull up, hiss their doors open and load their human cargo.
In Florence, S.C., pickup comes at 5:45 a.m. From Greensboro, riders can sleep in a little later. Pickup is not till 6:30, or maybe 7 a.m.
The destination, though, is the same: Cherokee, N.C., and specifically Harrah’s Casino. All roads, it seems, lead to the towering, cavernous complex that is now into its third decade on the tribal home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Across town, the outdoor drama that tells the story of the Cherokees’ forced removal to Oklahoma in 1838 has been around longer than the casino. “Unto These Hills” opened to audiences in 1950.
Not far off the narrow, downtown strip that has lured tourists to Cherokee since automobiles made travel possible to these scenic Smoky Mountains, the celebrated Museum of the Cherokee Indian draws more than any other cultural landmark in town. More than 84,000 visited the museum last year.
But at the casino complex – begun in 1999, expanded in 2015 to a satellite site 60 miles away and currently with new construction in Cherokee for a new hotel, ballroom and convention center – the traffic never stops.
For Jonathan Moody, who helps run the largest tour bus company in North Carolina, that steady flow of tourists spells business.
“It’s drop ’em off at the casino and pick ’em up at the casino,” Moody told Carolina Public Press.
This time of year, Holiday Tours hauls casino travelers to Cherokee every Monday and Saturday, said Moody, assistant general manager at a company his grandmother started 41 years ago when she took a bus tour, then walked away from her hosiery mill shift to build her own bus company.
Of all the daytrips offered by his company in Randleman, south of Greensboro, offers, Moody said none is more popular than the bus trip to Harrah’s casino in Cherokee.
At the casino, missing out on Cherokee
With Harrah’s offering not just legal gambling but also retail shops, swimming pools, 10 restaurants and the largest hotel in the Carolinas on its 56-acre campus, “there’s really not a need to go anywhere else,” Moody said.
For some on this self-governed tribal land, owned by the remnant who avoided the tragic Trail of Tears in 1838, that’s a concern.
Pioneer Motel & Cabins is the kind of motel familiar from flickering home movies of another generation, when simple, one-story “motor lodges” welcomed young, postwar families suddenly mobile.
Laurel Cooper has owned the Pioneer Motel for 32 years, and though she says, “We do OK,” the boon that is the Harrah’s Casino has not trickled down to her business alongside U.S. 19, which winds out of Cherokee toward Bryson City.
Where Cherokee businesses centered primarily on tourism once made hay in the summer season and then lay low through each winter, the casino’s year-round draw has helped the Pioneer Motel stay open on winter weekends.
“I might get the people who come up for the concerts,” Cooper said. “We don’t really get the gamblers.”
Like other tribal members on the 56,000 acres known as the Qualla Boundary, Cooper sees two fairly distinct groups of tourists to Cherokee: those who come to gamble; and the tourist more common before there was a casino, those who come to “see Indians” or fish and hike at this gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Marina Hunley-Graham, the artistic director at “Unto These Hills,” helps oversee 200 employees for a nightly summer tradition that then shrinks to a staff of 10 in the offseason.
“I don’t want to say that the casino is a threat, because it’s not,” she told CPP.
There is little argument that the casino’s presence has improved Cherokee’s economy, facilities and government services. Numbers provided by the tribe’s Office of Budget & Finance show that gaming revenue from Harrah’s totaled more than $393 million in 2018.
Of that, half is distributed to eligible tribal members in two payments each year; the other half goes to tribal projects that in recent years have included a new hospital, more affordable new housing and downtown revitalization.
Nearly 16,000 Cherokee tribal members received more than $12,000 each last year, according to published reports. The per capita distribution was the largest given since the 1997 opening of Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee.
“The casino helps fund all of our programming,” said Hunley-Graham at the outdoor drama.
But like others, who spoke simultaneously of the benefits and the changes brought on by Harrah’s 23-year presence in Cherokee, Hunley-Graham added: “Yes, it is a concern that people in the casino don’t typically leave the casino.”
Cooper, owner at the Pioneer Motel, and officials at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian said some tourists to the casino do catch a crosstown shuttle and take advantage of other sites. Some tour bus customers, too, might be a couple with one spouse intent on gambling and one planning to spend the day shopping and sightseeing.
But the numbers indicate the interest. And they’re stacked decidedly in favor of the only legal casino gambling in North Carolina.
At the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, attendance was good in 2018 — more than 84,000. The summertime production of “Unto These Hills” drew about 33,000.
But some 4 million visitors passed through the Cherokee attraction operated by Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment — the casino.
In 2011, a study by the University of North Carolina called the casino’s impact on the entire region “large and dramatic,” providing a boost of $380 million. Though the casino alone “has not solved all regional economic and social problems,” the report said, “all available evidence points toward a substantial improvement in regional well-being on almost all measurable dimensions.”
Most who visit Harrah’s Casino stay in Harrah’s Casino, say those familiar with the attraction. That may, on one hand, concern outdoor drama director Hunley-Graham. But she quickly adds: “That’s the way we want them to be because that’s where the money is.”
The money funds important projects and social improvements far beyond the poker tables and 3,335 slot machines in the casino. A Cherokee Preservation Foundation was created with casino money and is credited with improving cultural preservation around Cherokee.
That’s important to the leaders at some of Cherokee’s most cherished cultural institutions, who cringe when a traveler on a bus headed for the casino says — as one did for this story: “Have you been to Cherokee? There’s not a lot going on there.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that we are still alive,” said Dawn Arneach, interim director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Indeed, throughout its history, the Cherokee community has fought – and sometimes fostered – Wild West images of Native Americans from tourists who expected TV-themed caricatures of their “Indian” experience.
Whether a visitor to Cherokee spends the day in the casino, in the museum or under the stars at her outdoor drama, Hunley-Graham echoed her colleague Arneach at the museum:
“We want people to come away saying ‘Hey, the Cherokee people are still here.’ ”