Ten yers after Harrah’s, Cherokee is a better place

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino quietly marked its 10th anniversary in November, but it’s impossible to ignore exactly what it has meant to the Eastern Band of Cherokee and its members. It has been the catalyst for a proud people to turn around their economic plight, and in doing so use the gaming revenues to preserve a culture and history that is part of the story of all the Americas and this county.

Most everyone in this region has heard of the casino’s success, but it never hurts to do a kind of “paint by numbers.” The Tribe gets 50 percent of the casino profits, which last year was about $240 million. An expansion project now under way will cost nearly $650 million. Once complete it should help increase the casino’s profits — and therefore the Tribe’s share — and add another 900 jobs to the 1,800 the casino has already created. It is the largest employer in Western North Carolina, and even the lowest-paying jobs at Harrah’s provide benefits many small employers in the mountains can’t match. In the ensuing 10 years since it opened, many have forgotten the days of perennial double-digit unemployment on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding counties.

All that money has been used to build everything from new schools to health-care facilities. From the very beginning — contrary to what many in the region were saying when it became apparent the casino would be wildly successful — the tribe has used this money to make life better for its people.

The improved living conditions take many forms. The annual per capita payments to Tribal members — $8,700 this year — have boosted family income and buying power. Youths must wait until they are adults before they can get the money, which is being invested for them. Those born this year will have a huge nest egg by the time they reach 18. Those who don’t attend college must wait until they’re 21 to get their money.

The huge economic impact of the casino profits, however, is perhaps overshadowed by projects the Tribe has taken on to preserve its culture. A language immersion class teaching Cherokee to infants is now several years old. Since Europeans came to the Americas hundreds of languages have vanished, but this movement will make sure that Cherokee is not one of them.

In addition, dozens of other cultural investments from a renovation of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to a festival with tribes from throughout North America are all taking place because of the profits generated from Harrah’s. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation is the cornerstone of these efforts, and it has quickly become the largest foundation in the region and perhaps the state. Tribal leaders are positioning the Cherokee as the tribe that is doing more than any other to preserve Native American culture. That’s an honorable position to uphold.

Of course there have been some drawbacks to the impact of gaming. The tribe has become a huge political contributor and therefore will open itself to criticism that it buys influence. Just recently the Tribe was criticized for not adequately making notification of its campaign contributions. And there are those dealing with gambling addictions, something that will always plague casinos everywhere.

But the story of Harrah’s and the Eastern Band of Cherokee has so far been one of resurgence and pride. The casino profits were meant to be a means to an end, and so far tribal leaders have made wise choices that will help their members, honor their ancestors and boost the entire region.

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