out naturalistNews outlets began reporting Sunday night (July 1) that North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed Senate Bill 820, which would have allowed energy companies to use a process known as hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, to drill for natural gas in the state. Fracking is the technique of injecting drilling fluids composed of water, sand and toxic chemicals under intense pressure into shale or other rock formations, fracturing them and allowing the trapped natural gas to escape into the drilling casing.

Gov. Bev Perdue and leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have headed back to their respective sides of the negotiating tables to tweak the landmark agreement that would permit table games, real cards and live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The agreement would give the state a cut of gaming revenue in exchange for a promise of exclusivity, namely a pledge that the state wouldn’t allow any other casinos in the immediate region. The agreement is now being tweaked in hopes of satisfying legislators in the General Assembly who have yet to sign off on the deal since it was inked by the tribe and Perdue last November.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been working diligently with the governor and the General Assembly on a new compact that will allow for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino,” said Chief Michell Hicks in a statement. “We hope to have the new compact approved soon and be ready to take this important issue in front of the North Carolina General Assembly in the upcoming short session.”

It is still unclear exactly what portions of the compact the tribe and Perdue are hoping to renegotiate. Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Perdue had previously disagreed on whether the revenue the state collects from the tribe should go into a dedicated fund for education, as Perdue wanted, or into the general budget, which Republican legislators wanted.

The deal struck between the tribe and Perdue was the product of years of lobbying and negotiating. The clock is now ticking to get it finalized given Perdue’s announcement that she will not be seeking another term.

The tribe and governor’s office seem confident an agreement will be reached soon and the deal will get the necessarly rubber stamp from the General Assembly.

“We’ve got 10 months and an entire legislative session yet to go,” said Mark Johnson, a press officer for Perdue, in an email.

It is unclear whether the tribe would have to start back over at Square One if a new governor came into office before the agreement is finalized by the General Assembly.

Techincally, the compact already signed between the governor and the tribe is good for 30 years. Even if the General Assembly doesn’t approve it this year, it could still do so next year, or the next year, without the agreement going back to the new governor’s desk for approval.

But, a new governor could gum up the works if he wanted to, by vetoing it after the General Assmebly passes — making getting it passed before Perdue leaves office the safest bet for the tribe.

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal, which would mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“If approved, this will bring more than 400 jobs to the boundary and help to create additional revenue for the casino, which will result in a positive impact not only for the Eastern Band but also for the state of North Carolina,” Hicks said.

Meanwhile, casino management is getting its ducks in a row so it will be ready to roll out live dealers if and when the General Assembly gives its blessing.

“We are looking at the many, many things that would have to happen if that is passed,” said Brooks Robinson, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “We aren’t pulling too many triggers on it but we are monitoring the situation.”

The Eastern Band and Perdue initially signed a compact in late November. They had hoped the General Assembly would vote on the issue before it took its winter recess. But, Republican leaders rebuked the idea, saying they did not have adequate time to review the agreement before the break.

According to the November version of the compact, Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

In return, the tribe would be allowed add live gaming and receive exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville. The tribe wanted a larger swath of exclusive territory, but the state would not yield.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

— Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story

After years of lobbying and months of hard negotiating, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sealed a deal with Gov. Beverly Perdue this week to bring table games, real cards and live dealers to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

“It has been along hard process,” said Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks. “With any negotiation you are going to have doubts but at the end of the day we kept pushing.”

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal.

The addition of table games will mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“Lots of people claim their huge economic impact and you can kind of see it if you squint and tilt your head the right way — but with these guys you can probably see it from outer space,” said Stephen Appold, senior research associate with the UNC-Chapel Hill business school, who authored a report on the casino’s driving economic force in the region.

The tribe is still one step away from final success, however.

The tribe needs the General Assembly to ink the deal. The General Assembly is out on winter break, aside from a brief return to Raleigh this week to take up pressing issues that couldn’t wait. The deal with Cherokee was supposed to be one of those issues, but Perdue is at odds with the Republican leadership in the General Assembly over the state’s cut of revenue off the new table games.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

Republicans balked this week at quick-signing the compact, saying they need more time for review. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, said the GOP-dominated General Assembly simply didn’t have adequate time to read and review such a lengthy document.

“I regret we weren’t able to vote on it this session,” Davis said. “But for the Governor to drop this in our laps without giving us a chance to read it seems shortsighted.”

Hicks said the tribe isn’t worried that the deal will fall apart, but merely sees it as a delay.

“It is frustrating but I am pleased we have progressed to the extent we have and I am confident in the very near future it will be approved,” Hicks said. “We’ve taken a giant step forward.”

Hicks, the vice chief, half a dozen tribal council members and a delegation of advisors from within the tribe and hired lobbyists spent the first part of the week in Raleigh getting the gaming compact signed by the Governor and pushing the General Assembly to take it up.

While the General Assembly doesn’t officially reconvene until May, Hicks hopes legislators will return to Raleigh soon to decide on the bill.

“We truly hope we don’t have to wait for May,” Hicks said.

The region desperately needs the jobs and the state desperately needs the revenue. Calling a special session of the General Assembly during the off-season to take up economic development isn’t unheard of. The state did it to approve incentives for Dell Computer several years ago.

“We are like any other company or organization. We feel if we are creating jobs, we should have our Governor and legislature get behind us,” Hicks said.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done to prepare for table games, and the tribe and Harrah’s aren’t wasting any time.

“As of yesterday the planning process was rolling,” Hicks said Tuesday.

Table games must be bought, space made for them on the casino floor, and an army of dealers must be hired. The hiring and specialized training of the casino dealers will be the lengthiest part of the process.

Hicks said the timeline for the roll out of live table games will be laid out within the week.


A delicate dance

Ultimately, Cherokee is giving up a share of its revenue on the new table games to secure the state’s approval. How much revenue has been a chief issue in the negotiations. The tribe also wanted a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory.

The two issues were linked at the bargaining table. Cherokee offered up a bigger piece of the pie if the state would promise to keep other casinos out of the rest of the state.

The state would only agree to a relatively small exclusive territory, however, and settled for a smaller share of revenue as a result.

Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

This helps Cherokee in the early years after rolling out table games, when the tribe is still paying-off its start-up costs for the games and realizing their potential.

As for exclusive territory, Cherokee got less of what it wanted. The state would only grant exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville.

Written correspondence between the tribe and the Governor’s office over the past four months paints a picture of their respective positions, and the compromises they arrived at as negotiations played out. Neither side would talk about their positions during the deal making, but letters between the two provide a surprisingly candid storyline of where the parties stood.

Only in retrospect are the tactics and bargaining positions of the tribe truly apparent.

“We knew where the stopping point was. Again in any negotiation you have to have a starting point and a stopping point. We knew how far we could push and how far we could be pushed,” Hicks said.

Those decisions were made in concert with the vice chief and tribal council, Hicks said. Cherokee drew on its history of more than 300 years of experience negotiating deals with other governments, “not all in our favor,” Hicks pointed out.

But in this case, the gaming compact is fair to both parties, with neither trying to take advantage of the other, Hicks said. Hicks said the tribe is pleased with its deal.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

That amount is sure to increase with the addition of live table games.

Until now, the casino has been limited to digital video gambling machines. Despite the handicap, the Eastern Band of Cherokee has catapulted to the forefront of WNC’s economy.

The approval of live table games comes just in time. The tribe is nearly finished with a $633-million expansion of the casino that remade the property into a destination resort.

When the tribe embarked on the expansion six years ago, it hoped that live table games would be in its cards one day — rather than the video gambling machines it had been limited to.

The expansion has already proved its worth, even without live table games rounding out the picture. Revenue peaked at Harrah’s Cherokee in 2007 before the recession began to take its toll. Profits have been on the rise since 2010.

Casino General Manager Darold Londo predicts Harrah’s Cherokee will return to its pre-recession levels by the end of next year — even without the addition of table games.

“That’s quicker than the industry,” Londo said, crediting the Cherokee expansion project. “The industry doesn’t expect to recover sometime until 2014 or beyond, whereas we expect to hit that sometime in 2012. We’ve had the ability to control a little bit more of our own destiny.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue visited Main Street Friday to announce that Waynesville received a $300,000 grant from the state’s Main Street Solutions fund to help with The Strand Theater renovations.

“We decided Waynesville would be one of the best places in the state to invest $300,000,” Perdue said. “That’s not a lot of money, but it’s a jump-start in this economy.”

Eight other towns across North Carolina received money from the fund, totaling $1.95 million.

“It’s pretty cool what you can do with something old to ignite the growth in small towns across North Carolina,” Perdue said.

“I believe fundamentally that the more Main streets we can see grow and prosper the way you’re prospering, the more of that we can do across North Carolina, the better off we’ll be for economic development.”

Buffy Messer, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, estimated 150 people packed into the Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 to hear Perdue’s speech.

As the governor entered the gallery, chatter and The Bean Street Boys’ bluegrass music filled the room. Zeb Ross, Levi Ross, Connor Lucky-Smith and Keegan Luck-Smith, ages 13 to 16, have been playing together for seven months.

“We’ve had audiences, but nobody like the governor,” banjo player Levi Ross said.

On the sidewalk outside, local and national Tea Party members used the governor’s visit to protest high taxes and government spending, including the Main Street Solutions grants.

“It’s an opportunity to reinforce with our state leaders that we’re concerned about state spending and what they’re spending it on,” Waynesville Tea Party member Lois Venardi said.

Venardi and other protestors said they did not disagree with the renovation of the theater.

“I think there’s other ways it could be done without using taxpayers’ money,” she said.

After her speech, the governor went to Just Ducky, a clothing and gift store for children, to shop for her grandchildren.

“Gov. Beverly Perdue probably didn’t set out to give Western North Carolina a slap in the face Wednesday.

“But we know a slap in the face when we see one, and this sure qualifies.”

— Asheville Citizen-Times editorial, April 23


Asheville Citizen-Times Editorial Page Editor Jim Buchanan — a Haywood County resident and a friend of mine — was right on target with this one. My sentiments exactly, and a sentiment shared by a whole lot of people in our region.

Gov. Beverly Perdue chose not to attend the first official event in the yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The occasion was a Governors Proclamation Ceremony and it was held at Clingmans Dome. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was there.

According to Perdue’s spokesperson, Chrissy Pearson, “The governor was invited and did give serous consideration but given the length of the trip and the potential travel cost involved she declined. It is so far out of the way and we are trying to cut back on travel.”

Perhaps Ms. Pearson didn’t get the significance of her words, but the “so far out of the way” line is a bit hard to swallow. Everyone out here knows how far we are from Raleigh (it’s about 6 hours from Clingmans Dome to Raleigh, and MapQuest estimates the fuel cost there and back at about $70). The distance in miles is significant, but it’s the attitude that can be read into the governor’s statement that is more revealing.

I could go on for thousands of words, but here are three important points about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the southwestern part of her own state that Gov. Perdue might need to be reminded of:

• The park is probably the single largest economic engine in the state, if one doesn’t consider the “beach” as one entity. Nearly 10 million people a year visit the park, and the surrounding communities depend on it — especially when times are as tough as they are now. But somehow Tennessee has laid claim to the Smoky Mountains. Most citizens of this country think of Tennessee when they think of the park, and its governor made sure he had time on his schedule to get to the ceremony. Perdue’s absence only solidifies Tennessee’s link with the Smokies and surely will help the towns on the western side of the park.

• The still-evolving legacy of the park— from a cultural standpoint — deserves recognition from leaders in Raleigh, including the governor. She could have stood on the podium and made note of how the creation of the park was controversial in its day because so many residents were uprooted from their homes and communities, their land forcibly “taken” (though they did get compensation, that’s the general phrase used). She could have pointed out that the initial skepticism about the park was heartfelt but that its creation has become a grand success, creating a jewel for future generations and a permanent gold mine for the economies in the state’s far west.

• Finally, she could have assured citizens here that this region, though many miles from Raleigh, is not “out of the way.” From a political standpoint, Perdue should know that citizens in the mountains have a long history feeling that they have been left out. A visit to this important ceremony would have helped establish that Perdue does indeed feel differently.

I’ve had the good fortune to live, literally, all over North Carolina — Fayetteville (south piedmont), Boone and Blowing Rock (northwest), Durham (central), Raleigh (central), Roanoke Rapids (northeast), Elizabethtown (southeast) and now Waynesville. All of those places are special, but not a single one has people imbued with the strong sense of place that is the norm for those here in the mountains. The creation of the park is an important component of this legacy, and Perdue’s no-show will have some saying that she just doesn’t understand that.

In the grand scheme of things, this probably doesn’t rank very high in terms of Perdue’s mistakes during her early months in the governor’s office. What it indicates, however, is that some things just haven’t changed much in Raleigh.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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