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.”

When Brooks Robinson left his manager’s job at Domino’s Pizza to be a dealer in the fledgling casino market of Tunica, Miss., he wasted little time finding that first rung in his climb up the corporate ladder.

“I had never been in a casino,” Robinson admits. But he knew an opportunity when he saw one.

“The gaming world was coming to Mississippi, and it was so interesting to me. There was a great opportunity in that market. I had high hopes of quickly moving up the ranks,” Robinson said.

Now 18 years later, Robinson has gone from frontline card dealer to the general manager of the $500 million a year operation of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

Robinson takes over the top position at Harrah’s Cherokee this week from Darold Londo, who has steered the casino through a major $633-million expansion over the past six years.

It’s Robinson’s job to follow through on the expansion, not only overseeing the final phases of construction over the next year but managing the opening of myriad new restaurants and retail shops within the resort.

His biggest challenge is far less tangible, however.

“People say if you build it they will come, but in the state of the world we are in today that is not always the case,” Robinson said. “We have to go out and do a strong job of promoting this new resort and sharing with the rest of the world what we have to offer.”

Indeed, that’s the ultimate jackpot behind the expansion. It has set the stage for Cherokee’s casino to capture not only a new demographic of gamer, but any tourist looking for a destination resort in the mountains. More than 1,000 first-class hotel rooms, an array of restaurants, nightlife, big-name entertainment, shopping, and even a spa will remake Harrah’s Cherokee Casino into a bona fide resort unrivaled by any other in North Carolina.

“We can appeal to a whole segment of the market we haven’t been able to previously,” Londo said. “Brooks is taking charge of an organization that is bigger, more dynamic, more complex. It has more potential than what we had six years ago.”

Potential, however, is the key word.

“You can build the box and create the structure, but the marketing piece and the delivery of service, the promise to our guests of a different experience and feel of this property is something we have to really focus on,” Robinson said.

For Harrah’s Cherokee to come into its own as a true resort, Robinson has to inspire a new culture among its 2,000-plus employees. Working at a resort takes a different mentality.

“It is more than excellent customer service. It is creating and environment that is totally resort like,” Londo said.

Every employee has to be part-salesman. Room service waiters should be able to tell guests what concerts are coming up, valet attendants should be familiar with the restaurants menus, and so on.

It’s true now more than ever, after news this week that the casino will at last be able to offer live table games — something Robinson didn’t know for sure when doing the interview for this article.

When the tribe embarked on the casino 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. Live table games with real dealers was contingent on approval from the state, however.

After years of lobbying and months of hard negotiating, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed a deal with the tribe this week to make that dream a reality (see related article).

It makes Robinson’s job all the more daunting — and exciting — to overhaul the casino floor and bring the new table games online.

Robinson has put down roots in Haywood County, where he lives on five acres in Bethel with his wife and two teenagers. He is the only casino general manager at Harrah’s that raises goats and chickens and harvests vegetables from a backyard garden — although his wife takes most of the credit for their family experiment in farming.

When Robinson made the move to Harrah’s last summer, he knew the general manager post might be in the cards one day.

“It was like that rookie quarterback in the NFL that is behind a superstar waiting in the wings to take over,” Robinson said.

The Cherokee casino is a standout among the 40 properties under the Harrah’s corporate brand, Robinson said.

“The reputation of this team is something that is known across our company,” Robinson said. “It was clear when I got here they had truly adapted and wanted to be the best they could possibly be.”

Robinson came to Cherokee from Harrah’s Louisiana Downs casino where he served as vice president of operations.

The roll of assistant general manager will be filled by Lumpy Lambert, an enrolled tribal member and current vice president of casino operations.

“The long-term experience and proven track record Lambert brings will help us complete our transition to a resort destination,” said Robinson.

Lambert joined the casino in 1997, its very first year in business, as a casino operations supervisor. In 2002, he became vice president of operations. Lambert was a critical member of the team who defined the property's master plan expansion project.

As for Londo, he has taken on a new role at the corporate level of Harrah’s over new and expanding markets. It will be Londo’s job to size up locations for new casinos and envision what type of casino would work.

The expansion in Cherokee proved Londo has a knack for turning dreams into reality.

“Obviously I didn’t join Harrah’s thinking I was going to be a development guy,” Londo said. “But I love it, it is fun.”

Every year, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians get around $6,000, give or tax a few hundred here or there. In 1995, it was $1,190. In 2010, it was just over $7,000. It’s their cut, 1/28,890 of the net revenues at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, where the profits are divided 50/50 between operations and tribal members.

In the grand scheme of life, $6,000 is not an extravagant amount of money. When words like billion and trillion flash daily across headlines — numbers so big that even to grasp their breadth seems nigh upon impossible — $6,000 is a raindrop in the Pacific.

But Freeman Owle knows that $6,000 is more than that, really. Six thousand dollars is a powerful thing. It can open new vistas of opportunity and raise self esteem and change the face of an entire culture. And maybe buy a decent used car or a semester of college.

Owle has seen the tribe and the reservation change with the money — known locally as per cap, short for per capita — and for the better in nearly every way.

“I can’t see it as anything but good,” said Owle. He grew up here, then spent 13 years teaching in the Cherokee School System before heading over to Western Carolina University to teach there. He knows Cherokee, knows the people, and the change he’s seen from just this little bit of money is demonstrable.

SEE ALSO: Casino a catalyst for re-discovery of Cherokee power

SEE ALSO: New Cherokee Home Center fills a void

“I’ve seen more difference made in the self concept realm,” said Owle. When he was a kid, he said, keeping your head down was the order of the day.

“Before, they were just unobtrusively observing everything around them,” said Owle. In this post-per-cap world, his students and the ones coming after them, they’re engaging with the world instead of just watching it.

It’s hardly difficult to see the advantageous benefits of the casino in Cherokee. Brand new schools, brand new skate park, brand new, well, lots of things. But the benefits on an individual level are a slightly more difficult to track and quantify.

It’s easy to say that 473,000 square feet of new school is beneficial. But how do you measure the benefits of self esteem, or financial assurance?


Behaving successfully

‘Medically’ might be one answer.

Two long-term studies, one published in 2003 and one just this year, have studied the effects of per cap payments on the Eastern Band and its people.

The first was a Duke study looking at behavioral patterns in children. It was purely coincidental — researchers were looking at kids with problems acting out in school, and then, right in the middle of the study, something seemingly unrelated happened: the casino opened. And per cap checks started flowing freely.

Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up, because really, a few thousand bucks isn’t exactly a life of leisure — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.

“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”

The second study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last May, was a follow-up to the first. So things were better for kids when their parents had that little extra income security. Would that persist for those children as they transitioned into adults?

The answer, apparently, is yes.

“The most important aspect of this follow-up into adulthood is to demonstrate that an intervention occurring in adolescence can predict outcomes in adulthood,” said the study results, which is a scientific way to say that the benefits of per cap grow with time.

The kids who did the best, who were most positively affected in the long-term by the change in their family income, were the youngest. The longer they were exposed to the new, per-cap norm, the less likely they would slip back into substance abuse and all the adult problems that grow from childhood misbehavior.

Per cap, however, like every good story, is not a tale filled only with sweetness and light.

There is a downside, and it manifested itself brazenly for years before the tribe could develop a good response.

That shortcoming, of course, is obvious: you can’t make people do good things with their money. And for 18-year-old tribal members, getting the money that’s been saved and invested for them, often since birth, was an invitation into enticing irresponsibility.

“We have 13 years of 18-year-olds getting money and wasting it, and there’s been a lot of bad stories about young people not knowing what to do with their money,” said Keith Sneed. He is the one who, in the end, engineered a way to at least try to keep the newly enriched from moronic financial choices.

Sneed, like Freeman Owle, was a teacher in the Cherokee School System for years before per cap. And like Owle, he saw the lot of the tribe change dramatically in its wake. But, he thought, it could be so much better. Sure, kids now know that they have opportunities, he said, but if they only opportunity they see is a Porsche they really can’t afford, how is that better?

So he created a course called Manage Your Money that’s now a requirement — along with a high school diploma or GED — for anyone wanting to collect their cash at 18.


A better life

In a broader sense, said Principal Chief Michell Hicks, what per cap and its companion, the tribal operations cut, have done is increase the standard of living for the Cherokee people. They have better schools and health care and recreation because of tribal operations, and they have nicer homes and stronger businesses and more solid financial footing because of the extra six grand in their pockets.

“I think, you know, any time you can change the living standard, it changes to some degree their mental capacity and it gives them more confidence to do better,” said Hicks.

After 16 years, the tribe has gone a long way towards improving the basics of life, and now, said Hicks, they’re moving on to the next stage of growth with their wealth. The tribe can preserve its culture in language schools and museums and foundations because it can afford to. More Cherokee people can open new and nicer businesses in town because, thanks to per cap and tribal lending funds like the Sequoyah Fund, they can afford to.

And that’s where Hicks sees the tribe going in the future. Of late, there has been much talk of moving some of the eggs away from the Harrah’s basket. Casino revenues were down 8 percent this year and tribal population grew by 2 percent, so the amountof money in everyone’s pocket is shrinking.

But what about using the spoils of Harrah’s to decrease dependence on it, asks Hicks.

“I think that the next success is to really expand the economic base for Cherokee,” said Hicks, to get away from what have been called rubber tomahawk shops and get into the higher-end shops and restaurants. And to use per cap and tribal funds to do it.

Inez Sampson has been around since far before the payments started coming in. She, like many, believe that it helps.

“You can’t really buy a house or anything,” said Sampson, “but it helps. It helps you be able to do the things that you’d really want to do.”

And to realize that they’re there to be done.

Casino dollars, and lots of them, have brought the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians newfound clout this past decade, from the legislature in Raleigh to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“It has put us at the table,” Larry Blythe, the tribe’s vice chief, said in a blunt assessment of the tribe’s political transformation since Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened in November 1997. “I would say that we’ve always been recognized and listened to as an important tourist destination. But the political influence — we didn’t have the influence we have now.”

With gaming money came the benefits of being able to attract and hire the state and nation’s top lobbyists. Money also brought tribal leaders the ability to wine and dine state and national leaders when needed to try to influence votes and shape perceptions.

Gone are the days when Cherokee could ill afford to even send its leaders to Raleigh, much less to visit leaders in the U.S. House and Senate. Before the casino, Blythe said, the hard work of individual Cherokee leaders to build political bridges was hampered by being money-poor and, perhaps more importantly, by the perception of Cherokee and its people as politically insignificant.

“Lobbyist can open doors, and we can truly now step through them,” Blythe said. “And we can go en masse, and we can go in force.”


Bridging Indian and white

Sara Waldroop lives in Franklin, but she keeps a close eye on politics in her home community of Cherokee. She is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band, and the 74-year-old never misses voting in tribal elections. Waldroop was formerly the director of the board of elections in Macon County, and she now serves as chairman of that county’s election board.

You could accurately say that given her professional background, Waldroop’s political perceptions are a bit more honed than many. These days, for the most part, she likes what she sees — a principal chief, Michell Hicks, who has financial acumen (he once served as the tribe’s finance director) re-elected for yet another term, and a tribe that doesn’t shy from taking a leadership role in the region.

SEE ALSO: A rising tide lifts all boats

SEE ALSO: New Cherokee Home Center fills a void

That’s a far cry from the situation Waldroop remembers growing up, when Cherokee families such as her own lived paycheck to paycheck, running credit tabs at one of the two stores in that area. Her father worked for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and they lived in Ravensford and later in Smokemont Campground. Her grandfather was white (Major McGee, who grew up in Big Cove, spoke fluent Cherokee and who proved instrumental in reconstructing Mingus Mill), her grandmother, Cherokee. Waldroop, of the Yellowhill community, found herself with pretty much with an equal stake in two worlds, Indian and white.

She went to school in neighboring Bryson City. Waldroop doesn’t particularly remember there being notable differences between the Cherokee children and their white classmates. No overt racism, no particular distinctions made by adults. Then, as now, Cherokee children were not a novelty in Swain County’s school system, or in neighboring Jackson County. Besides, Waldroop said, no one had much money — Indians or whites. And that created a commonality that transcended race. Everyone was of the mountains, and no one had dollars to spare.

“I don’t think we had it any harder than anyone else,” Waldroop said. “So we didn’t think that much about it (any differences).”

Waldroop believes the addition of the casino, overall, has been good for Cherokee.

“It’s another world from what we had back in the 40s and 50s,” she said, adding that Cherokee tribal members actually seem more aware these days of their culture, and take real, visible pride in being Indian. When the casino was being built, some tribal members openly worried that Cherokee would lose its unique cultural identity.

Instead, Waldroop said, “the casino, I think, has really helped.”


Bridging white and Indian

Growing up at about the same time, storyteller and all-around regional personality Gary Carden was experiencing the flipside from Waldroop. A white kid from Jackson County, Carden washed dishes at the bus station in Cherokee for then manager Winona Digh, later Winona Whitetree.

“That was the best deal around, $12 a week,” he noted. “I remember coming into town in the early morning fog and seeing Fess Parker wading across the Oconaluftee with Buddy Ebsen. They were filming ‘Davy Crockett.’ A lot of Cherokees got steady work with the Disney’s film crew and some of them traveled to Mexico for the Alamo scenes because Disney felt that they looked like Mexicans. I later recognized some of my friends in the Mexican army that invaded the Alamo.”

It would be hard to over-emphasize the economic importance of tourism in those days, and “Davy Crockett” and the and the lure of real live American Indians helped draw the crowds to this remote corner of the Smokies. Stereotyping was rampant.

“Every day, I sat on the bridge with these Cherokee kids and our favorite thing to do was to watch the tourists,” Carden said. “We’d never seen them before. They were in Studebakers and Henry J’s. We sat out on the bridge and played this silly game where we tried to see the most exotic license plate — New Jersey, Minnesota. But most were from a 100-mile radius.

“They would sometimes pull up and stop, and of course I was this little white kid sitting there in the middle of all the Cherokee. They consistently thought the Cherokee couldn’t speak English. The drivers would roll the window and they would say ‘You got teepee?’ making a teepee motion with their hands. And to the girls, ‘You got papoose?’ and they would take our pictures. Little by little it caught on, and enterprising Cherokee gave them sheet-metal teepees and some of the girls brought their little brothers tied in a bed sheet.”

What developed was a strange new economy based on tourism and faux American Indian culture that was good each year for six months only.

“When the tourists left it was dead in Cherokee, but it created a tourist-oriented economy,” Carden said. “And of course, they had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to stimulate that economy, and they did it for so long they forgot who they were. Today they are trying to go back to their authentic Cherokee culture.”


No longer reliant on tourists

David Redman helped develop that critical Cherokee tourist trade. A white man, he worked in Cherokee travel and tourism for years, starting in 1988. Like Carden, he saw the limitations of a local economy totally dependent on tourism.

“Unemployment was high in the region for decades, with Swain County reaching the 30-percent level,” Redman said. “It was even higher on the reservation. Prior to the casino, the tribe was probably the strongest tourism destination west of Asheville. However, the tourism season lasted between five and six months (May through October) with employees being laid off until the beginning of the next season.”

Pre-casino, the Cherokee experienced overt discrimination in the region and beyond, Redman said.

“Employees in the tribal program I managed would often complain that area businesses would not accept personal checks and that they were treated differently than non-Indian customers,” he said. “I would take my staff to a Christmas breakfast, sometimes to Pigeon Forge, other times to the Dillard House or Grove Park Inn. Customers’ eyes were on us, and there was a definitely feeling of coolness.”

That said, being white in Cherokee then wasn’t always easy, either.

“How was a white man working for an Indian tribe being accepted?” Redman said. “First, with a huge amount of distrust — a shipload of distrust. Trust between the white and Indian isn’t immediate and mutual. I felt that I had the trust of some Indian co-workers only after five years or more.”     

The casino has changed that. Racism certainly still exists here as it does everywhere, and stereotypes of Indian culture live on, too. But the casino, a vast and hungry employer of the region, has helped further mix white and Cherokee. Both work in the managerial ranks, and in a large corporation such as Harrah’s, hard work is the way to climb the corporate ladder.

Cherokee scholar John Finger, a retired professor from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the author of several books and academic writings on contemporary Cherokee culture, said he started paying attention to the tribe in the mid-1970s. The changes, Finger said, have been profound.

“I’ve seen the tribe become more economically prosperous, the end result of both the tourist and gaming industries. They seem much more in tune with modern American business and life.”

Like Waldroop, Finger believes the casino has actually strengthened and deepened the Cherokees’ ties to their culture, “making them more aware of their status as Indians, particularly Cherokee Indians.”

And, even as tribe members’ cultural awareness has awakened, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has emerged as a potent political and economic force for all of WNC.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a resilient, independent spirit. When the U.S. government forced the majority of the tribe to head west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, those who remained were the defiant ones, and it is their offspring who now form the nucleus of the tribe. It is these Native Americans who are using the profits from what was originally a controversial casino to help rediscover their cultural identity.

Prior the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band were a poor tribe with little influence. Tribal members who lived in Cherokee struggled to make a living in a tourism-dominated economy. Because there was little industry and because the region was so isolated, the area around Cherokee, Swain and Graham counties perennially topped the state in unemployment, averaging around 25 percent for many years when the state first started keeping statistics.

Much of that changed with the coming of casino profits. The tribe found itself with a newfound wealth and power. What’s noteworthy in this transformation is how that money has been used to invest in Cherokee and its people, when it could have gone to line the pockets of only the most powerful.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation might be the most notable symbol of this transformation. The Foundation was created as part of the second gaming compact with the state in 2000, and it has funneled millions of dollars into cultural, historical and economic development projects on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding region. Those investments include the Cherokee language immersion program, a Native American art institute, helping restore rivercane for traditional basketmaking, investing in traditional Cherokee arts such as metalsmiths, making broadband more available in rural Western North Carolina and dozens of other worthwhile projects.

The tribe itself has built a new school that uses green technology and celebrates tribal traditions, invested in health care and public safety, and is teaching its youth how to wisely manage the per capita payments they receive from casino profits. It also helps each of its high school graduates pay for college. Men and women who work for the tribe earn good wages and benefits.

In other words, the tribe is investing in itself, its people and its traditions. When you talk to members of the tribe today, the pride in what is happening in Cherokee is obvious.

There are still problems in Cherokee, just as there are everywhere in this country. But over the past decade those of us who live here have witnessed a resurgence among the Eastern Band that surpasses what most thought possible when gambling was first approved. They’ve used the casino profits wisely, to say the least. That’s a credit to the Eastern Band members and its leadership.

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

Help wanted signs aren’t too common these days. But there’s an anomaly here in the far end of the state, where Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is in the throes of a $633 million expansion, one that will bring 800 new jobs to an otherwise desolate labor market.

Hiring that many new workers — plus keeping up with turnover — is no small feat. The casino has averaged 30 new employees a week during the height of its expansion. It takes a staff of seven, day in and day out, to sift through all those applications and set up interviews. Hiring is such an all-consuming task that official signs point the way to “applicant parking” and even an “applicant entrance” on the casino property.

Harrah’s has hired 500 new employees over the past two years to run the new hotel tower, expanded gaming floor and half a dozen new restaurants. It has another 300 to go by this time next year when the expansion is built out.

“We are one of the few businesses that is adding jobs,” said Darold Londo, the general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “Name another company in North Carolina that will have 300 more employees at this time next year than they do today. You can’t. There isn’t one.”

The recession has made hiring easier for Harrah’s.

“When the economy was really going well, we had a bit more of a challenge finding people,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee. “The economy has helped us in that sense because a lot of people are without work.”

Employees are staying longer as well. Turnover averaged about 30 percent before the recession compared to 20 percent now.

“People are tending to hang on to their jobs. There aren’t a lot of other opportunities out there,” Blaylock said.

While out-of-work Realtors or laid-off teachers have given Harrah’s hiring a boost, Blaylock predicts some will return to their primary field when the economy recovers.

But for now, Harrah’s is an oasis of jobs in an employment desert.

Kim Gurdock of Franklin was ecstatic to land a job with Harrah’s recently after months of looking for work. She moved to the mountains from south Florida earlier this year, giving up more than two decades as a teacher to forge a new life in a better place. But the only job she could find was working at McDonald’s.

“I had applied for 42 jobs in Franklin,” Gurdock said, a list that included the school system, banks, grocery stores and retail. Gurdock felt like her lack of local roots was a strike against her.

She starts this week as a food runner in the VIP lounge at the casino. Her boyfriend also got a job at Harrah’s as a cook, and she hopes they can work the same shifts to carpool for the 45-minute commute.

Her story isn’t that unusual.

“It is amazing the number of job applications any more that we get for jobs. It used to be 15 applications, and now it is 75 or 80,” said Dale West, the Employment Security Commission manager for Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. “If there are openings, people will apply if they think they are at all qualified.”

Josh Williams, an accounting student at Western Carolina University trying to pay his way through school, was commuting from Sylva to Asheville to work at J.C. Penney, one of the only jobs he could find. But his hours kept getting cut. So he applied at Harrah’s on the advice of a friend at school. He starts this week in food service at the new Paula Deen’s Kitchen restaurant on the property.

He considers himself lucky “considering jobs are scare right now,” he said.


A blow to unemployment

Harrah’s payroll accounts for 8 percent of all wages and salaries in Jackson and Swain counties. It’s one of Western North Carolina’s largest employers, and not just for people in Cherokee.

Tribal members make up less than 20 percent of Harrah’s workforce — only 350 of the nearly 2,100 employees are Cherokee.

The number seems low at first blush, considering Cherokee is home to about 7,000 tribal members. Some are obviously too young or too old to work. Others are stay-at-home moms, disabled or have otherwise dropped out of the workforce.

A large number of tribal members work for tribal government and agencies, nearly 1,000. Then there’s the myriad gift shops, hotels and restaurants plying the tourist trade in Cherokee — and suddenly the pool to draw from locally isn’t all that large.

The upshot to the region is that the casino has to look outside Cherokee for a huge number of its employees.

Unemployment in Swain County was 18 percent in 1995 before the casino opened. It dropped to a low of just 5 percent in 2006.

“It has made all the difference in the world as far as unemployment,” said Brad Walker, the mayor of nearby Bryson City. “If you want a job, you can get one. It has improved the lives of a lot of the people in Bryson City and Swain County. It is fantastic.”

While the recession has driven unemployment in Swain back up to about 13 percent, it could be far worse without the casino.

Most notably, perhaps, is the improvement in the labor market in winter months when tourist jobs historically dried up. Before the casino, the unemployment rate in Swain regularly topped 30 percent in the winter. By 2006, however, unemployment even during the dead of winter was as low as 8 or 9 percent.

“Before the casino a lot of tourist places closed for the winter and now they stay open,” said Vicki Horn, who works at the Employment Security Commission in nearby Bryson City.

Interestingly, the success of the casino has made the total job market more robust, eating into the available workforce for the casino itself.

“The casino has allowed tribal members to work other places,” said Vicki Horn with the Employment Security Commission in Swain County.

Casino revenue flows to tribal coffers, creating jobs for members of the tribe. The same goes for private businesses now thriving thanks to casino spin off.

“This hotel wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the casino,” said Walker, the general manger of the Fairfield Inn in Cherokee.


A challenge to hiring

The huge influx of casino employees has stressed the affordable housing market. Affordable housing for blue-collar workers is a challenge in most communities. But it was particularly true in the mountains, where real estate prices have been driven sky high by the burgeoning retiree and vacation home market, leaving low-paid hourly workers in the service industry struggling to find housing they could afford.

A surprising number of new hires at the casino have moved here specifically for the work, but have trouble finding somewhere to rent.

“I had a guy come in yesterday who told me he had accepted a position at the casino and was looking for a rental,” said Megan Cookston, a Realtor at Yellow Rose Realty in Bryson City. “That is a problem in this area. They ask ‘Where do we look?’ and really the only place to guide them to is the newspaper, but there is not that much there.”

Yellow Rose manages short-term vacation rentals, and those have been doing a brisk business thanks to the massive $633 million expansion at the casino. Construction companies have been renting houses to put up their laborers in town for the job.

“Electricians, plumbers, people hanging sheetrock — it is just everything,” Cookston said.

To meet its hiring goals, Harrah’s solicited the help of Haywood Community College to hold job fairs on the casino’s behalf. Once a month, Harrah’s hiring team travels to Waynesville to tap a fresh pool of applicants.

“We can see 30 in a day instead of 30 driving over here,” Blaylock said.

Harrah’s has a strict drug testing policy that likely hurts its employment pool. All new hires are tested for illegal drugs using a hair sample, which detects substances going back 90 days, far more stringent than the standard urine test. Every month, the casino does random drug testing on 1 percent of the work force, selected from a computer-generated list.

“The drug test is something that we do not waver on,” Blaylock said. “I think some people don’t apply because they know we do drug testing.”


All about the perks

Salaries at Harrah’s vary widely based on the job. Stewards make $8 an hour, while cashiers make $9. But food service supervisors make $45,000 a year, and the grounds supervisors and top chefs make up to $55,000.

But the benefits, particularly the health insurance, make up for what the salaries may lack.

Nationwide, businesses are cutting benefits as they grapple with rising health care costs. Employees are ponying up a greater share of their insurance costs and forking over higher deductibles and co-pays.

At the casino, workers don’t pay a dime toward their health insurance.

“They are better benefits than you will find anywhere else,” Londo said. “You can thank the tribe for that. Cherokee has established that as the norm for anyone who works for the tribe.”

The tribe covers the full cost of medical, dental and vision insurance for all tribal employees, and extends those benefits to the casino as a tribal entity. Legally, the casino can’t have two tiers of benefits for employees — it can’t offer better coverage to enrolled members than non-tribal members — so everyone, whether Cherokee or not, enjoys the generous health insurance plan of the tribe, Blaylock said.

Harrah’s takes the health of employees seriously. As a self-insured entity, every doctor’s visit comes out of the casino’s bottom line.

To cut those costs, the casino is hiring an in-house physician’s assistant and will open two onsite exam rooms in January. Being able to see a doctor at work will also cut down on employees clocking out for doctor’s appointments.

Employees also get a physical every quarter. If they are overweight or if their cholesterol is too high, the casino gives them a cash incentive to meet health goals. Al Lossiah, a employee trainer, bragged about getting $75 for losing 25 pounds this year.

“Then I gained it back and they’ll pay me to lose it again,” he joked.

To encourage fitness, Harrah’s has an onsite workout room with treadmills, bikes and rowing machines open to any employee who wants to use it.

Some employees probably don’t need it though. Gaming hosts walk an average of eight miles every shift, while the laundry team hefts 12,000 pounds of linens in and out of machines each day.

Alternatively, a pair of black leather vibrating massage chairs are up for grabs on breaks or after your shift.

While health insurance tops the list of coveted benefits, it’s one of many offered by a company that prides itself on taking care of its employees. Workers get a 3 percent match to a 401K, plus a pension worth another 3 percent of their salary. Vacation time maxes out at a liberal six weeks after nine years on the job.

There’s non-tangible perks, too. Harrah’s partners with Southwestern Community College to offer GED classes onsite at the casino and covers the enrollment fee for anyone who wants to pursue it.

There’s also assistance of the monetary variety. Harrah’s makes grants or loans to employees that have fallen on hard times through its “employee care fund.”

If an employee is dealing with a difficult teenager at home, substance abuse in their family or the stress of caring for elderly parents, Harrah’s pays for counseling.

“It is easy to say leave those concerns at the door and come in and service the guests, but in reality it is not that easy to do that,” Blaylock said. “We take a holistic look at our employees. If they feel good about themselves, they will exude that when they are talking to the guests.”

In that sense, Harrah’s loyalty to its employees isn’t entirely benevolent. It’s a little more mercenary than that: happy employees equal happy players equal more money at the end of the day.


Total Harrah’s Cherokee employees: 2,084
Jackson    796*
Swain    690*
Haywood    308
Macon    121
Graham    50
Buncombe    27

*Figures for Jackson and Swain include employees living on the Cherokee Reservation, which lies partly in both counties.

In a basement classroom at Harrah’s casino, a fresh group of new hires stretched out before Al Lossiah, the latest in an endless stream of weekly newbies.

They were here to learn the art of moneymaking, with Lossiah as their guide, motivator, acting coach.

“You don’t have to like them, but you got to be nice to them,” Lossiah said. “You guys have been hired as entertainers now, you learn to act. When they walk in the door, this is what I see when I look at their face.”

He picked up a marker, turned to a dry erase board and drew a giant smiley face. But in place of eyes, he put two dollar signs.

“When you do your job, we all get paid,” Lossiah said. “Keep these people happy, keep them spending that money here.”

With 3.5 million guests tromping through the casino every year, smiling at each one of them can be taxing. But employees can’t afford to let down their guard. You never know which one is the high roller, Lossiah said.

Players spend hundreds of millions at Harrah’s every year. But it’s a relatively small number of players accounting for most of the play — roughly 10 and 20 percent of players account for 80 to 90 percent of the gaming revenue.

Lossiah and those who have worked there long enough know who the high rollers are. There’s one lady who spends about a million a month, every month, he said.

“She can go anywhere in the world she wants to go, the Riviera, anywhere. But she chooses to come to Cherokee. Why? Because we treat her like a queen,” Lossiah said.

“If I was out in the public and someone said ‘I got some dust on my shoes’ I’d say, ‘Here’s a quarter go call somebody who really cares,’” Lossiah said. “Here, I can treat anybody like a king and a queen. Can I get you a drink, can I get you a cup of coffee, and you smile at them.”

He pointed to his smiley face with the $$ eyes again.

“They pay good money for us to be nice to them,” Lossiah said.

For tribal members who work at the casino, there’s a double incentive. Tribal members get a share of casino profits, amounting to more than $7,000 for each of the 14,000 members of the Eastern Band last year.

“You do your job well, guests are happy, they stay longer and play more, the casino makes more money, and per cap checks are higher,” Lossiah said.


A different kind of interview

Job seekers eager to jump on the Harrah’s Casino gravy train should be forewarned: brush up on your singing and learn a few jokes.

To measure stage presence, applicants are put on the spot, not only in front of the hiring team but as one of 10 job seekers in a panel-style interview.

“We might say imitate your favorite celebrity. We want to see if they are inhibited and can’t stand up and talk, versus who can stand up and really sell themselves,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee.

It doesn’t matter if you are applying as a hotel maid or kitchen dishwasher, Harrah’s wants all employees to think of themselves as being in the entertainment business.

“Do you have the energy, do you have the personality, can you talk in front of people,” Blaylock said. “We are really looking for people who can converse and have good relationships with guests — people that can have a good time and have a good personality.”

Not every job demands such a disposition. There are plenty back-of-house jobs, from the laundry to the landscaping team. In that sense, placing new hires in the right job is just as important as who gets hired.

Harrah’s is loyal to its employees and will work to find a good fit

“There’s about 250 different things to do here,” said Darold Londo, the casino’s general manager.

There’s fulltime light bulb changers, people who repair torn upholstery — there’s even a full-time staffer dedicated to making sure the culinary desires and whims of stars performing at Harrah’s are met during their stay. Grocery bags of soda and chips were piled up in a posh backstage lounge a couple of weeks ago awaiting the weekend arrival of country star Travis Tritt.


‘Opportunities abound’

Rising through the ranks is common at Harrah’s. The prospect of promotion is part of the job allure.

“What I convey is if you like the organization and our DNA that is unique to Harrah’s, there are opportunities abound within our organization,” Londo said. “There are people doing things that are beyond their wildest aspiration when they started at this organization.”

Londo tries to plant the seed of a Harrah’s career track when speaking to new hires.

“I want you to look back in five years and see this as the defining moment in your professional career,” Londo told a recent batch.

To help develop managers from within, Harrah’s Cherokee has a team of four fulltime, in-house trainers.

When the Eastern Band launched its casino enterprise in 1997, the tribe was angling for more than just money. It hoped the business would provide jobs for tribal members, Londo said. Many in top jobs today are Cherokee who rose to their positions.

Employing columns of tribal members remains a major goal, but not everyone is cut out for customer service jobs, particularly in the casino sector where wooing players with smiles and charm seems to fall on everyone’s shoulders, even the $8.50  an hour food runners and carpet cleaners.

“That is a real live business challenge,” Londo said.

Since taking the helm at Harrah’s six years ago, Londo has made a point of dropping in on every new hire training, a first for general managers at the Cherokee casino. He spends an hour chatting up the week’s new hires, a non-scripted and free-wheeling spiel that feels more like friendly banter over happy hour than a corporate lesson from the top boss.

Londo’s goal is buy-in.

“I want you to look for ways to make this a better place to work and play tomorrow than it is today,” Londo told new hires.

As a kid, Londo was frustrated by Coke machines only accepting coins. So he wrote a letter to “Dear Mr. Coca-Cola” and suggested vending machines that took bills.

Londo encouraged employees to ignore the chain of command. While his old West Point military academy instructors might cringe to hear him say it, Londo told employees they don’t need to run to their supervisor with every question or problem, but instead take it to the person whose job it is.

Oddly, Londo stops short of the mantra of that the customer is always right.

“We will part ways with customers if they do or say something inappropriate because we value our employees,” Londo said. “We want to convey that we value our human resources and our most valuable asset.”

Keeping morale high for 2,000 employees and keeping everyone pulling in the same direction takes constant maintenance beyond that first week of training.

Londo recalled the “have you hugged a security officer today” campaign. It was fun at first, until security officers starting getting dozens of hugs every day from their coworkers.

“It kind of backfired,” Londo said.

Before every shift, supervisors lead their team in a “buzz session.”

“They play a game to get their energy going and get the laughter coming out, to get them pumped up for the day,” Blaylock said.

“A job doesn’t necessarily have to be a job. A job should be something you enjoy and have fun at,” Blaylock said.

“If we are having fun our guests are more likely to have fun. If guests have an enjoyable time they will come back.”

That’s where Lossiah comes back again and again to his smiley face on the dry-erase board, the one with dollar signs for eyes. His red laser pointer frequently finds its way to those $$ eyes during his new hire training.

Lossiah makes no apologies for it.

“That’s Harrah’s financial strategy,” Londo told a recent group of new hires. “We treat you well, you are satisfied you take that to the guests, treat them well, we have job security and financial success,” Lossiah said.

When all is said and expanded at Harrah’s, there will be 2,000 seats at the various restaurants scattered across the property. That’s enough for every employee at Harrah’s to sit down for a meal together, albeit at different restaurants.

It marks a massive expansion of the casino’s dining options — tripling its seating and bringing in a whole new line of culinary fare, from an upscale steak house to Dunkin Donuts.

Getting all the new restaurants ready for customers is a mammoth task that falls to Greg Gibson, the food and beverage director for the entire Harrah’s Cherokee operation.

Just deciding which restaurants should earn a spot in the made-over casino resort was a challenge. Not everyone who visits the casino is on the same budget or has the same tastes. Meanwhile, Harrah’s is trying to rebrand itself, shedding the casino-with-hotel image and moving towards a full-service resort mentality. And what kind of food is served at a place like that?

For Gibson, a lot of his job is trying to determine that.

“It’s about having different levels available for different guests, having a well rounded portfolio as we come into a resort,” he said.

So Gibson looks at focus groups and customer feedback to make sure the direction they’re moving in is the right one.

“We look at different developments and different price points (to see) how much demand would we have for 800 seats total of one type or one price point of food,” said Gibson.

He’s out on the floor, he makes the rounds, he shakes the customers’ hands so he can get a better handle on who they are and exactly what they want.

Some of the new offerings are an Asian Noodle Bar, Paula Deen’s Kitchen and a food court, home to Johnny Rockets, Dunkin Donuts, a deli and pizzeria Uno’s, which are already open. Alongside those will be Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Brio, an Italian Eatery and the Chef’s Stage Buffet, which will feature cuisine from around the world.

Gibson has a lot of corporate experience with Harrah’s, he’s been with the company for 13 years. But he knows what it’s like to work the restaurant floor, too. As a Louisiana college student, he was a bartender for a local hangout before opening his own restaurant, the Caddyshack Bar and Grill. From there, he moved into the casino world and has worked his way up since, now piloting Harrah’s food and beverage into an era where cafeteria-style buffets are giving way to high-class steak joints and upscale Italian eateries.

All those new restaurants require a few hundred new employees, whether it’s bussing tables or prepping food.

The person teaching employees what to do with this new paradigm is Denise Morrison, the food and beverage trainer. Like Gibson, she’s had a long and storied career with Harrah’s, starting in 1986 as a valet parker. From there, she moved further into hotel operations, became a cashier and then cashier manager in what they affectionately call ‘the cage.’

Now, she teaches supervisors how to teach the Harrah’s way.

“I assist managers, directors and supervisors in opening the food outlets, mentoring new supervisors and new employees. I’m a counselor, I’m a teacher, I have a lot of different roles,” said Morrison.

She helps write the standard operating procedures, then makes sure they’re being followed. She helps supervisors know exactly what their employees should be doing. She’s teaching them to cater to the kind of people who come to a resort, and being a resource for them when things don’t exactly work.

“The people skills are where my forte is,” said Morrison, and even amidst opening a bevy of new restaurants, the most thrilling part of what she does will always be the people. “I enjoy being with the employees, I enjoy seeing them grow, I enjoy taking a new hire and molding them into getting another position. I like to see them become successful and just have that passion. That sometimes is hard to find.”


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Dishwasher extraordinaire

Dishwasher extraordinaire

Jeremiah Chatham is the kind of person who looks far too gregarious to be wearing a suit. He has an open face, an easy laugh and is prone to a quizzical, smiling expression that’s at once friendly and disarming.  

Chatham is the recently appointed executive steward at Harrah’s, which is a deceptively vague title for a hard-to-define job.

Basically, Chatham is supposed to make sure everything food-related stays clean — the dishes and cutlery and glassware and trashcans. Where cleaning and food service intersect, well, there will Chatham be also.

But really, it’s more than that, and the job is ever-changing, as Harrah’s grows and spawns new eateries, a new employee dining room and new buffets, to name a few.

“Every time I’m able to quantify it and define it, then we just grow,” says Chatham.

As the property grows ever upward and out, even the walls aren’t guaranteed to always be in the same place, a consequence of working in the middle of a massive construction zone.

“I remember when I first started here we’d have this pathway that we walked through. One day, I’m finishing shift and the pathway that I used to take now had walls,” says Chatham, by way of illustration.

Part of the challenge, in that kind of environment, is ensuring that the behind-the-scenes stay that way — in the back of house.

“I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about is the logistics of trash. That you see a trashcan, and when you’re in a resort operation the trashcan is never full,” says Chatham. “You don’t think about where your trash goes, but there is a major process to it, there are all these steps that we have to take to make sure that it’s out of sight and out of mind.”

And the composting of all the food coming off the many restaurant lines is another, major operation entirely. It’s all sent to the Cherokee landfill for repurposing into compost, and Harrah’s is the top contributor.

And as new restaurants keep moving in, one of his top priorities is streamlining how all the cleaning, composting and trash pickup is done.

Sure, Paula Deen’s Kitchen has totally different forks than The Noodle Bar, but they should be washed the same way.

“The ultimate goal is to get every outlet essentially to run the same way, so that when we walk into Paula Deen’s, it should be just as clean as the food court,” says Chatham.

Doing that, he says, requires an intimate knowledge of how every process works to begin with, which is why his favorite part of the week is losing the suit and donning a work uniform, getting into one of the restaurants alongside his 70-person team and working a shift with them.

“I like it because it lets me see what problems we have procedurally,” says Chatham. “You need to be administrative and be operational at the same time. You need to know how to balance that.”

A balancing act is really what his job is becoming, a balancing act on a steep learning curve.

There has never before been an executive steward at Harrah’s Cherokee. This is the make-it-up-as-you-go phase. And in the midst of that, the job is doubling and, by the end, the stewarding staff will probably double, too.

Although it may be his first time in this job, Chatham knows this business back to front.

He’s been working in food service for a decade, in every position from the very front to the very back of the house. He finds something of a poetry in how he’s come full circle, from his first position as a dishwasher back to this job, a kind of king of the dishwashers.

In fact, he started at Harrah’s as a server, with no view towards bigger things. But after putting in his ten years on the line, this was the next natural progression.

Most of Harrah’s guests have no idea that Jeremiah Chatham exists, but without him, their experience would be a lot different in seemingly small ways that make a big difference.


Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Finding a custom fit 2,000 times over

A masterful game of musical chairs

Deep in the labyrinthine basement at Harrah’s, in an ordinary hallway sits an extraordinary room. There’s a service counter and a door, and it seems, at first blush, like a standard work-and-storage room — a few shelves, some sewing machines on desks and a row or two of wardrobe racks.

The room that holds the wardrobe department is, however, TARDIS-like: it’s bigger on the inside.

And Arlene Reagan truly couldn’t be prouder.

Come in and look straight upwards, and before you unfolds an entire story of snaking racks, filled with skirts and shirts and raincoats and blazers and specially-tailored dresses and elaborate Asian-inspired costumes — the image of Harrah’s Cherokee, expressed in clothes.

This is Reagan’s domain. She’s the wardrobe supervisor, and on her automated racks are the uniforms of 47 different departments, enough to dress anyone from size zero to 26.

Every last person who dons a uniform for Harrah’s crosses Reagan’s threshold. No oversized shirts or misshapen pants miss her inspecting eye. Unlike many uniformed companies, employees here get fitted before hitting the floor. Some such as beverage severs who roam the gaming floors, cocktail tray in hand, get a custom tailored fitting, a uniform melded to their precise shape. Front desk clerks, in dry-clean-only suits, get the same courtesy.

Everyone else leaves the wardrobe room with what Reagan calls a street fit, an outfit that fits like you’d buy it yourself.

And with employees rotating in and out in a never-ending cycle — there’s a new hire class every week — the job in wardrobe is never done. The department closes for six hours each day, from midnight to 6 a.m. Otherwise, Reagan, her two seamstresses and five clerks are busily fixing and fitting for 18 hours a day.

They sew on buttons and hem pants and skirts and resize for those on the up or down swing of a weight-loss plan. A handmade dress hangs on a rack next to a sewing machine, modified for maternity after a beverage server announced her pregnancy.

Then there’s the testing. Of the 47 departments, Reagan helps managers pick new uniforms every few years. They bring in vendors, have a fashion show and then they test.

When clothing 2,000, it’s tempting fate to take the manufacturer at its word.

“We would look for the construction, the durability, we would run it past a stain test,” says Reagan. “If it was a beverage server garment, we would take everything that they would come into contact with and we spill it.” Coke, coffee, vodka, grape juice, cleaner. And then they wash it. Does it shrink or pill or stretch or otherwise react weirdly? Is it uglier post-wash?

For the seamstresses and clerks, it’s a constant education. With nearly four dozen departments and numerous different uniforms in each, an encyclopedic knowledge of how each works is essential.

Reagan came to the job when the casino opened in 1997 with a home economics degree, a remnant of days past, and experience making traditional Native American costumes. Plus, she’d just been sewing her whole life.

She has a warm, motherly air and a practical, cheerful demeanor. She’s reminiscent of Julia Childs, forthright and merry, and like the famed cook, came to her career later in life, after seeing her children through high school.

A lot of her clerks and seamstresses came from the now-diminished manufacturing sector that once employed many behind a sewing machine. There’s not much turnover here, but with those skills becoming harder to come by, finding their eventual replacements may prove challenging.

Though Harrah’s is entering ever-new iterations of itself, Reagan has watched the company’s outfits move rather more cyclically over the last 14 years, much like fashion in the wider world.

“It kind-of goes in a cycle,” she says, offering an example. “When we started out in beverage, they were in a dress, then after that they were in a bustier, then they were in a jacket, now we’re looking again back at a bustier.”

The current beverage dress du jour is somewhere between dress and bustier, a cropped jacket and tailored A-line skirt.

The looks have come and gone over the years, but Reagan’s business has barely changed.

As with any job, she’s learned tricks to make it better. There’s now a chute for dry clean clothes. The clerks have learned an assembly line to fly through routine repairs.

The best part of the job, she says, is the people. And while everyone says that about their job, when Reagan says it, it is truly believable.

She makes people look good, because good-looking people work better and better-working people make the company better.

“You get paid for being nice,” says Reagan. What, she asks, could be better?


Luring gamers to play longer, play harder

Gardener sees casino as a canvas

Dishwasher extraordinaire

A masterful game of musical chairs
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