After years of a stalemate with the state over live dealers at Harrah’s Casino, the election of Gov. Beverly Perdue signaled new hope for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that an agreement finally could be reached.
Perdue had signaled a willingness to reopen talks about allowing live dealers, in addition to the electronic games now offered at Harrah’s. But the state’s banned video gambling industry has other ideas.
A lawsuit filed by a video gaming firm argues the governor does not have the right to negotiate gambling compacts with the Cherokee, alleging that the power lies only with the General Assembly.
“The approval of compacts between the State of North Carolina and other sovereign entities, including the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, is a core legislative function; therefore, by negotiating and executing the Compact and amendments thereto Governors Hunt and Easley violated the state constitution’s ‘separation of power’ clause,” states the complaint filed by New Vemco Music Co. in Wake County Superior Court in February.
It’s the second such case filed by New Vemco. Last year, a lawsuit claimed the state didn’t have the right to allow video gambling in Cherokee while banning it everywhere else. The company has appealed to the Supreme Court, which hasn’t yet decided whether to review the case.
Ralph Amik, New Vemco’s owner, pledged to keep fighting for to restore the outlawed video poker industry in the state.
“We may wind up taking it to the Supreme Court to do it, but we are going to win,” Amik said. “I don’t care what the Cherokees do. I really and truly don’t, but we were in business first. They can’t give it to one and not the other.”
Together the two cases have been seen as an effort to force the state to lift its ban on video gaming, which it prohibited in 2007, by hamstringing the process of expanding gaming on the Qualla Boundary.
Officials in the governor’s office have acknowledged that the cases have stalled negotiations over live gaming at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
“The governor has always welcomed that dialogue with the Cherokee, but the fact that there are two legal cases pending in court certainly affects her ability to carry those discussions forward,” said Chrissy Pearson, Gov. Perdue’s press secretary.
Pearson said the governor would wait until the cases are resolved to move forward with the live dealer discussion.
“The crux is that both cases do need to go through the courts so we can know what precedents will be set before we proceed any further,” Pearson said.
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Michell Hicks would not comment on the status of the live dealer discussion or the lawsuits, citing a policy against discussing “pending lawsuits or compact negotiations with the state” with the media.
With the rest of the region’s construction economy at a standstill, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino is in the midst of a massive expansion project employing nearly 1,000 workers.
“We’re kind of creating our own gravity in terms of labor and resources,” said Erik Sneed, project manager for the casino expansion.
The expansion of the casino and hotel began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. The $600 million project will dramatically increase the casino’s gaming capacity and transform the hotel into one of the largest and finest in the country.
Sneed said Harrah’s has designed its gaming expansion to be flexible enough to be easily adapted if the casino reaches an agreement with the state of North Carolina to bring live dealers to the gambling floor. The casino will go from 3,400 games to 4,700 — 160 of the new additions will be table-based.
In May, the first phase of the bigger gaming floor will come on line, claiming the former entertainment pavilion and performance stage. The new casino area, unveiled with an earth/water-theme, will house 750 additional games and a brand new full-service bar in a non-smoking environment.
In June, another phase of the casino’s expansion will bring an additional 1,000 games on line.
Another characteristic of the new gaming marketplace is adapting to the Asian gambling profile. Feeding off its success at other casinos with Asian gamblers, Harrah’s will add an Asian gaming room featuring Pai Gow poker, baccarat and a nearby traditional noodle bar.
The casino’s expansion reflects the newest trends in the gaming industry. The whir of the slots, the clinking of the coins, and the neon lights have given way to interactive LED lighting displays and electronic debit swipe cards.
The new casino addition is designed as an open, airy environment that draws the outside in by incorporating natural light.
“We’ve really tried to embrace the outdoors and connect well with the creek and the outside surroundings by using lots of glass,” Sneed said.
A newly landscaped green space around Soco Creek, featuring native river cane and reeds, will integrate the casino and hotel into a park-like campus. When the façade of the hotel is complete, the green roof of its porte cochere will be an architectural centerpiece.
The hotel expansion will crown the 37-acre casino complex with a dramatic 21-story high rise — the third and biggest hotel tower yet — featuring glassed-in luxury suites up to 2,000 square feet in size.
The casino’s expansion is a sign of ambition, but it’s also a response to a practical reality. Last year, Harrah’s Cherokee purchased over 77,000 rooms off-campus for casino guests, as their on-site hotel accommodations were consistently maxed out. The expansion will nearly double the hotel’s room capacity from 532 rooms to 1,001 rooms with 107 suites.
A slot machine at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino malfunctioned, delivering a shock that floored a gambler, according to a lawsuit brought by the victim.
While the incident occurred over three years ago, Willie Jean Robinson is still waiting to hear whether she can collect civil damages over the bizarre personal injury case.
Robinson is suing Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and IGT Inc. –– the manufacturer of the slot machines –– for damages related to her injuries.
The case stems from an incident that occurred in March 2006 when Robinson was playing a slot machine at the casino and allegedly received a shock that injured her right hand and left her with lasting loss of feeling in her fingers.
“When Plaintiff inserted the card into the slot machine ... she was immediately shocked by the machine and fell to the floor. The individuals who accompanied Plaintiff to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino attended to her and it was immediately reported to the Defendant Manager on the floor,” the civil complaint reads.
Her attorneys allege that Robinson suffered personal injury, lost wages, and incurred medical expenses as a result of the accident. But the case hasn’t been as simple as determining who, if anyone, was at fault for the defective slot machine.
Robinson’s lawyer, John Hayes of Charleston, S.C., filed the case in Jackson County Court. But the defendants in the case, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and IGT Inc. can’t agree where the case should be heard.
Last month, legal counsel for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Tribal Gaming Casino Enterprise asked a judge in Jackson County Superior Court to move the case to tribal court, arguing that a failure to do so would “adversely affect the tribal sovereignty of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”
Attorneys for IGT Inc. –– a publicly traded global gaming company –– argued that because neither the company nor the plaintiff resides in Cherokee, tribal courts should not have jurisdiction over their portion of the case.
Hayes said after talking to the casino’s attorney, he agrees the proper place for the case to beard is in tribal court. Hayes said he expects Judge Zoro Guice to issue an order that will move the case to tribal court.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino may soon serve alcohol on the gaming floor, after receiving an unofficial go-ahead from a state attorney.
The casino has already been offering customers beer, wine and mixed drinks at restaurants and lounges in its adjacent hotel. Bringing alcohol to the floor, though, will be the bigger moneymaker for the casino.
Harrah’s had prohibited players from downing alcoholic drinks on the gaming floor due to uncertainty about a state law that bans gambling at businesses that serve alcohol.
“We had to be clear on the law,” said Bob Blankenship, chairman of the tribe’s Alcoholic Beverage Control commission.
But according to John Aldridge, special deputy attorney general, Harrah’s would not violate any law by serving alcohol on the casino floor.
In a letter to the state ABC commission, Aldridge wrote that the state law only impacts businesses that allow illegal gambling.
Since an agreement with both the state and federal government allows gambling at Harrah’s in Cherokee, the law would not be applicable.
According to Blankenship, all that’s left in the process is the tribal council’s formal approval. Tribe members approved the sale of alcohol on casino premises, but nowhere else in Cherokee, over the summer.
It will take about a week for alcohol to hit the casino floor after the tribal council passes the measure, Blankenship said.
While the addition of alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel will undoubtedly be lucrative for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, they won’t be alone in reaping a windfall.
Harrah’s will order all its liquor from the ABC stores in Sylva and Bryson City, which in turn will benefit the town’s coffers. The tribe does not have its own ABC store, and thus had to look to neighboring locales for its liquor.
Tension inevitably erupted between the ABC boards in Sylva and Bryson City at first, as each clamored at the chance to be Harrah’s supplier — and reap the profits and tax revenue off each bottle.
Typically, restaurants and bars buy liquor from the ABC store in their own town or county. In this case, however, the Cherokee Reservation straddles Jackson and Swain counties. Harrah’s itself lies on the Jackson County side, giving the Sylva ABC store de facto standing. But Bryson City is physically closer.
A compromise worked out between the Bryson City and Sylva ABC boards created a special joint board to exclusively handle alcohol sales to Harrah’s. They will share profits evenly.
N.C. Representative Phil Haire, D-Sylva, and Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie encouraged the two ABC boards to work together.
“Half of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” said Massie, adding that both counties would be affected by the addition of alcohol at the casino.
“We’re the ones that are going to have to deal with any problems coming from alcohol sales on the reservation, depending on whether they go east or west,” said Massie. “If we’re going to get the problems, we should get some of the revenues.”
Bryson City’s ABC board is admittedly doing most of the work, primarily since it has extra warehouse space to handle the added inventory, according to Laurie Lee, an auditor with the state’s ABC commission.
“The day-to-day work is handled by Bryson City,” said Lee.
Bryson City will order alcohol, provide warehouse space and take orders from the casino, according to Monty Clampitt, chairman of the Bryson City ABC board.
The Sylva ABC board’s only tasks are to “maintain the alcohol permit” for the joint operation and appoint members to Bryson City-Sylva ABC board.
However, both boards will advance $7,500 to cover initial start-up costs.
“The cost is almost nothing,” said Clampitt. “We have the warehouse space already. Labor would be provided by current employees.”
Alcohol for the casino will be stored in Bryson City’s old warehouse, while the new warehouse, built last year, will continue to be used for basic store operations.
The tribe plans to handle law enforcement, thus receiving the customary 5 percent of ABC profits designated for the local police station. The remaining profits will be split evenly between the Bryson City and Sylva ABC boards.
The two boards had been working on an agreement since September and finally signed a contract in mid-October. The state ABC commission formally approved the merger in mid-November, paving the way for Harrah’s to starting offering liquor drinks.
“I think this is a good compromise,” said Massie. “I think it benefits all involved.”
When asked about how much he expected his ABC board to profit from the expansion, Clampitt replied, “My crystal ball’s broken.”
For now, the takeover is going smoothly, according to all parties involved.
“It’s a new venture and we are proceeding as responsibly and carefully as we can,” said Charles Pringle, spokesman for Harrah’s Cherokee.
Cherokee isn’t the only one that potentially stands to make money off the sale of alcohol to patrons at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
Swain or Jackson counties could see a mini-windfall of their own if Harrah’s purchases vast quantities of liquor from the ABC stores in either Bryson City or Sylva.
Restaurants and bars that serve liquor must buy their booze from the nearest or most convenient ABC store — part of the tightly regulated nature of liquor that ensures collection of a hefty excise tax tacked on to each bottle.
While the state lays claim to the excise tax revenue, any profit turned by an ABC store remains with local coffers, generally split between the county and town where the store is located. More booze being purchased, especially the bulk quantities that gamblers at Harrah’s are bound to consume, means more profit for whichever store lands their business.
Before Sylva or Bryson City get too excited about the prospect, however, typical state laws governing liquor purchases may not apply to establishments in Cherokee, which consider itself a sovereign nation.
“They’re different,” said Laurie Lee, the auditor for the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “We don’t know at this point how it is going to work. It is a unique situation.”
Instead of buying liquor from the existing ABC stores in either Bryson or Sylva, Cherokee might look for a way to keep any profits of the bulk liquor purchases for themselves. That would essentially mean setting up its own ABC store.
State law requires voters in an area to approve the opening of an ABC store. Such a vote would be tough to pass in Cherokee where alcohol is a controversial issue, both for cultural, social and religious reasons.
While Cherokee voters approved a measure earlier this month to allow drink sales at the casino, the rest of the Cherokee reservation will remain dry. The pledge to limit drink sales to casino premises assuaged many who otherwise would have voted “no” — making it unlikely a vote on setting up an ABC store would curry favor from the majority.
But once again, it is possible an exception could be made for Cherokee. If Cherokee wanted to set up its own ABC store with the sole purpose of selling liquor to Harrah’s — rather than to the public — the state may allow such an arrangement without requiring the regular referendum.
Yet another option is for Cherokee to buy its liquor directly from the state warehouse, bypassing the Sylva and Bryson ABC stores. The state might like that idea, since it would stand to make the profits from the bulk orders.
“It is all a gray area right now,” Lee said. “Whether they will purchase directly through our warehouse or go through a local ABC board or whether they could set up their own store, we are researching all those issues. Those are all things that will have to be worked out.”
The first step is for Cherokee to decide on its preferred arrangement and then ask the state if it’s OK.
Norma Moss, the director of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, said the tribe hasn’t worked through those details yet.
“The distribution process still needs to be decided,” Moss said.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has donated $10,000 to Friends of the Smokies in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year.
The contribution recognizes the value of having the most visited national park in the country at Cherokee’s doorstep.
“I can remember as a child sitting under an apple tree under the highway watching the traffic go by just bumper to bumper,” said Joyce Dugan, the director of Communications and Relations for Harrah’s.
While Cherokee is a unique tourist draw in its own right, Dugan said the creation of the park instantly catapulted Cherokee into a tourism economy.
“There was a little dabbling in tourism prior to the park opening because there was curiosity about Indians. But being the gateway to the park brought thousands more through,” Dugan said. “There was just one way in and one way out. It really did open up Cherokee.”
Harrah’s sees 3.5 million visitors a year — roughly the same number that the North Carolina side of the Smokies sees every year.
“I think we share some of the same patrons,” Dugan said. “I think we can work hand in hand and promote each other.”
Cherokee has been retooling its tourism image in recent years. A large part of the new image has involved incorporating themes of nature into architecture and town layout, and promoting the Tribe’s various cultural tourism attractions like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village.
The park means more to the tribe than just tourism, however. The Cherokee have a spiritual connection with the landscape that was preserved by the park’s creation.
“As a tribe in these United States, our role should always be about the protection of the earth,” said Dugan, who previously served as chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “That’s what we stood for: not taking from the earth anything you could not use and always giving back. But we have adopted so many modern ways, we tend to abuse it, too. The park serves as a reminder to us of what preservation is all about.”
Dugan said there is some resentment against the park for the recent loss of gathering rights, which the Cherokee see as their right as native peoples. Cherokee historically were allowed to gather wild plants — mushrooms, berries, ramps, herbs, greens and the like. The park has recently tried to put an end to the special status afforded to the Cherokee people.
“Even though there have been resentments along the way, we know what a wonderful thing it was,” Dugan said of the park. “I think sometimes personally, ‘What if that park had not been designated? What would it look like?’ I just can’t imagine. In that respect, most all of us here who are Cherokee appreciate that.”
When Beverly Easton came to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino for the first time and realized there was no drinking, she wondered how an alcohol-free casino could even exist.
“I think it is a deterrent,” said Easton, who was visiting Harrah’s from Charlotte last Thursday. “You come here to have fun and relax, and having a cocktail is part of it.”
Such an integral part, in fact, that when Linda Moutray tried to orchestrate her five sisters to shift the venue of their annual rendezvous from Las Vegas to Cherokee, it was a deal killer.
“I thought, ‘Let’s all come here instead,’ but they wouldn’t because there’s not alcohol,” said Moutray of Gainesville, Ga.
That’s all about to change, however. Spurred by the promise of bigger revenues, the Cherokee people voted “yes” in a ballot measure last Thursday (June 4) that will allow drink sales at the casino. The casino will become the only place on the Cherokee Reservation, known as the Qualla Boundary, where beer, wine or liquor can be sold or served.
Nearly 50 percent of registered voters turned out to cast ballots in the monumental election. It passed comfortably with a vote of 1,847 to 1,301. The vote was held in conjunction with a primary election for tribal council seats.
Not all casino patrons are chomping at the bit to drink, however. Wanda Thurman, a regular at Harrah’s from North Georgia, said she liked the fact it doesn’t have alcohol.
“I’ve been at ones that drink and ones that don’t, and I’d rather be at one that doesn’t,” Thurman said. It’s irritating to have a drunk player beside you, especially if they keep slumping into you, Thurman said.
Bruce Cramond makes the trip to Harrah’s from Waynesville almost every week to play at the blackjack table, but said he would never drink when gambling.
As for why, “Why do you think?” he said. “If I’m eating, I would like to have a drink with a meal, but not while I’m gambling.”
Cramond knows he’s not the norm, however. He’s taken women to Harrah’s on dates who won’t come back because there’s nothing to drink.
“I do know a lot of people who don’t come here because they can’t drink,” Cramond said. “A lot.”
The casino hopes to roll out alcohol as soon as it can.
“I am hoping within the next six months, but that is a wild guess,” said Norma Moss, director of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise.
Many of the casino’s patrons are within a three-hour drive and venture to Cherokee for a daytrip. That could change if alcohol was an option.
“People would stay overnight more,” said Moutray, who often drives home after a day of playing but would stay over if she was drinking.
The casino hotel is frequently booked solid as it is, however. That means the addition of alcohol could be good news for nearby hotels that capture spillover from the casino.
The casino offers complimentary rooms to high rollers and frequent players, but often runs out of room even for them. So the casino books blocks of rooms at partnering hotels, shelling out the cost of rooms to put the players up, albeit off-site. Last year, the casino bought thousands of rooms directly from local hotels to house players, not to mention the business neighboring hotels garner from run-of-the-mill casino traffic.
The need for more hotel rooms has been a major driver of expansions at the casino in recent years. No sooner had the casino built a second hotel tower than it announced plans for a third, which is currently under construction and will double the number of rooms to more than 1,000 hotel rooms.
Casino profits have been vulnerable during the recession. Projected casino revenue for the tribe this year is $223 million, down from $244 million last year. One regular player at Harrah’s, Sandra Tankersley from Chatsworth, Ga., said she used to make a daytrip here every week or two, but has cut back to every other month.
“We’ve slowed down,” Tankersley said.
The tribe splits its cut of casino profits into two equal pots. One goes toward tribal government to pay for everything from education to health care to cultural preservation programs. The other pot is paid out to tribal members twice a year in the form of “per capita” checks. Payments amounted to $8,800 each for the tribe’s 13,500 members last year.
The first “per capita” check for 2009 was issued last Monday. It was $500 less than the “per capita” check tribal members got in December. The alcohol vote came just three days later, and the thought of dwindling “per capita” checks was fresh on everyone’s mind. It proved opportune timing for supporters of the measure.
“If people see money, it will pass,” said Chip Climbingbear when asked for his opinion on the vote before ballots came in Thursday.
But clearly not all tribal members were motivated by the prospect of bigger “per capita” checks or more government programs. Elvia Walkingstick, who works as a waitress at a casino restaurant, voted “no” — even though she stands to get bigger tips if alcohol is on the menu.
“It would be nice, but not at that cost,” Walkingstick said. She cited the historical issues with Native Americans and alcohol.
“It’s already a problem to begin with,” Walkingstick said. “It doesn’t make sense to add fuel to the fire.”
The biggest driver among those opposing the measure was religion more so than cultural issues over alcohol.
“My Baptist faith comes before my culture,” said Donna Morgan, a tribal member who voted “no” for the measure at the Yellow Hill precinct.
Alcohol is often a factor in domestic violence, child abuse and child neglect. It causes car accidents, creates performance issues in the workplace and sets the stage for drug addictions.
While alcohol plays an undeniable role in social ills, supporters claim drink sales at the casino won’t have an impact on the local population, however. Locals choosing to imbibe, whether it’s one drink or a dozen, will continue frequenting the liquor store and gas stations in Bryson City or elsewhere to pick up their goods.
Several voters interviewed after exiting the polls Thursday said the only reason they voted for the measure was because it was restricted to the casino. If the vote was over alcohol reservation-wide, they said they would have voted no. The casino will sell drinks to be consumed on casino property only.
It could be just a matter of time now until restaurants and stores elsewhere on the reservation begin selling alcohol, however. Being able to serve alcohol gives the casino an advantage over other restaurants and stores, say some. A petition citing the “unfair business competition” is already circulating as potential fodder for a legal challenge calling for alcohol sales to be extended to other businesses.
It would certainly make life easier for Shelly McMillan, a clerk at River Valley Store in Big Cove, if she could sell six packs. Tourists staying at one of several nearby campgrounds often come in to buy beer, only to learn the closest place to do so is a 40-minute round trip into Bryson City.
Last week’s vote landed on the ballot thanks to a petition drive by Cherokee voters. Tribal council was narrowly split on whether to hold a referendum on alcohol and was unable to override a veto of the issue by Chief Michell Hicks. So supporters took matters into their own hands with a petition drive that garnered more than 1,500 signatures, enough to bring the issue to a vote.
Perry Schell, a tribal council member from Big Cove, had supported the vote.
“I think people should have the right to vote,” Shell said. “I’ve lost some support over that but I feel like the tribe will make a decision about what’s best for them.”
It has been widely reported that drink sales at the casino, along with a major expansions underway, could lead to an increase of $9,000 a year in per capita payments to tribal members by 2015, according to estimates put out by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise. With current per capita payments hovering around $8,000, tribal members widely thought that their payments would more than double.
But that is not the case. The TCGE estimates instead show tribal members would get an additional $9,000 cumulatively over the next six years. The annual increases in per capita payments would average between $1,000 and $1,500 a year, adding up to net gain of $9,000 per tribal member by 2015.
It’s time for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to offer alcohol to patrons, especially since the Tribe is counting on receipts from the thriving gambling operation to pay for everything from health care to education, and enrolled members can certainly make use of the extra money. If Harrah’s is to remain the Tribe’s cash cow, the smartest route is to maximize profits by passing the measure permitting the casino to serve alcohol.
No one in this country, and particularly no one living near a Native American reservation, can deny the negative effects of alcohol. It’s created more problems for more families than most people can imagine. The damages have been significant among Native American populations.
But some things have changed over time. Cherokee has become a place where education and social programs have vastly improved over the last decade. While we will never erase all of America’s social ills, Cherokee now has more tools in place than ever to help its people deal with whatever addiction problems they might have. Having alcohol within the community at the casino may strike fear into the heart of some, but the truth is that alcohol is now available right over the county lines in Jackson and Swain.
Many of these programs to help the addicted, ironically, are funded by profits from the casino. Tribal leaders get 50 percent of the profits to fund programs, and they have invested that money wisely. Most all agree that having alcohol at the casino could lead to a substantial jump in profits. That means more money to build facilities like schools or public health clinics.
Tribal leaders and Harrah’s managers have decided to position Cherokee and the casino as a destination resort. That means they want Cherokee and Harrah’s to be a place people will come to for several days at a time, and research shows those travelers want the ability to have a beer or a drink should they desire.
Much of the opposition to alcohol at the casino comes from those who are morally opposed to drinking. The only point to make here is that alcohol — like gambling — is a choice, and those who are opposed to it should continue to argue and debate their side of this. Opponents deserve to be heard, and it remains to be seen who will win the day in this historic vote.
In a debate that has strayed into the arena of morality, it seems belittling to bring up the sour economy. But the economic slowdown in Western North Carolina has affected thousands of families, depriving them of work and the money necessary to take care of themselves. Harrah’s has become the region’s — not just Cherokee’s — most important economic engine. If its profits go up, then nearly 2,000 workers and dozens of small companies in and around the region — along with the 14,000 Cherokee who receive per capita checks — will have more money to spend.
The casino has brought a new prosperity to Cherokee and helped the entire region. There are many more positives than negatives in helping that business by allowing it to offer alcohol to its patrons.
On June 4, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will go to the polls to cast their vote on the most controversial issue that has faced the tribe in recent history — whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
The vote is a historic one, marking the first time in more than a decade tribal members will go to the polls to weigh in on whether beer, wine and liquor can be sold on the Qualla Boundary.
A vote on alcohol sales was soundly defeated in 1992. But over the past decade — since the arrival of the casino and a monetary motivation — tribal leaders have toyed with the idea of allowing alcohol sales within the casino only but not the reservation at large.
It made the hot-button issue more palatable, but tribal leaders still stopped short of holding a referendum until citizens themselves pushed the measure onto the ballot with a petition.
The issue remains a divisive one among tribal members. In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the vote are busy mailing out flyers, putting up billboards and giving speeches to bolster their case.
Two main groups have emerged to campaign in the debate over the alcohol vote. The opposition is composed primarily of a coalition of the 20-some Baptist churches in Cherokee who are staunchly opposed to the consumption of alcohol in all cases.
“I’d be fine if they have prohibition all across the nation again,” said Bo Parris, pastor at Cherokee Missionary Baptist Church. “I promote abstinence from alcohol.”
A second group made up of supporters of the measure contends that alcohol at the casino is strictly a business decision that will help increase revenues that benefit the tribe.
“We think it’s definitely the right thing for business,” said Norma Moss, head of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, which directs and guides tribal casino operations. “It’s a business decision, not a moral decision.”
Since it was constructed just over ten years ago, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has been a boon to the tribe. Casino revenues have helped the Eastern Band, once considered the poorest population in the region, to build schools, a hospital, and housing for tribal members.
But casino profits are waning with the recession. The tribe received a total $223 million from the casino in 2009, down from $244 million in 2008.
Supporters of the upcoming referendum say the addition of alcohol is crucial to attracting new customers and keeping casino profits up. Harrah’s Cherokee is the only casino in the Harrah’s chain that doesn’t sell alcohol.
“Alcohol is very much a part of the business model for casinos, and if you’re going to make a casino as successful as it might be, then you need to provide alcohol,” said Don Rose, chairman of the petition committee that helped get the referendum on the ballot and a tribal council candidate.
Rose says alcohol is needed to keep the casino competitive with others in the region.
“In business you either go up or down — you don’t stand still,” Rose said.
The tribe is working to increase the casino’s viability with a $633 million expansion currently underway. The expansion will add world class restaurants, shopping, and a spa, as well as double the number of hotel rooms and the size of the gaming floor.
“As we build our expansion, our goal is to become a resort, and we want to attract more destination gamers,” Moss said.
But a true resort, Rose argues, provides all the amenities a traveler is looking for, including alcohol. Studies have shown that for destination gamers in particular, the availability of alcohol is important. Seventy-three percent of destination gamers consume alcohol.
“For destination gamers that travel to resorts, that are loyal to properties, the lack of alcohol is an issue,” Moss said. “Our ability to sell alcohol enhances our image as a destination resort. We’re really excited about the products we’re going to have if we have alcohol. It opens up new possibilities for us to be able to offer something different to the customer.”
Casino officials hope the availability of alcohol would increase the casino’s customer base, and attract not just gamblers, but large conventions as well.
All told, new customers could increase casino profits by a minimum of $44 million, and as much as $70 million, each year, Moss said.
The casino’s multi-million dollar expansion will definitely increase casino revenues all on its own, even without alcohol, Moss said. But alcohol would provide a way to increase profits without putting up a large amount of capital.
“The investment of capital that we’re putting into the master plan project is significant,” Moss said. “What we will put into putting alcohol in place, if it’s passed, is a small amount of capital for a big return.”
Opponents of the alcohol referendum say their fear is that the vote will open the door to allowing alcohol elsewhere on the reservation.
“I don’t think it will stop at the casino,” said Ed Kilgore, pastor of Acquoni Baptist Church.
Moss wonders how many restaurants on the reservation would want to serve alcohol.
“I don’t know how many businesses would actually be interested in serving alcohol,” said Moss. “Our number of restaurants in Cherokee is somewhat limited.”
But some business owners beg to differ.
“Why should the casino have it and not restaurants?” questioned Jenean Hornbuckle, who, along with her husband, runs the Cherokee Motel, which sits directly across from the casino. Hornbuckle fears allowing alcohol exclusively at the casino will create unfair competition for small business owners who can’t offer it.
Whether casino profits are up or down has a direct impact on tribal members and the services they receive from the tribe. Of the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among individual tribal members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.
Per capita payments could prove the biggest motivator when members of the Eastern Band cast their votes next week. The first of two per capita checks this year will be distributed June 1, just three days before the alcohol referendum. The first check is in the amount of $3,892 — smaller than last year’s two payments, which averaged about $4,390 each.
Supporters of the alcohol referendum are using the smaller per capita amount to sway voters.
“We point out that the per capita is less than it was last year,” Rose said. “If we had alcohol, that would not have been the case.”
So will per capita checks really have an impact on how tribal members vote? Rose thinks so.
“I think that if this one did go down, they’re fearful that the next one will be less,” Rose said. “I think it will be a substantial impact on decision making.”
Moss and the TCGE have predicted that if alcohol is added to the casino, per capita payments will increase by about $9,000 per person by 2015.
Parris and others who oppose the measure are less optimistic about promises of increased revenues due to alcohol. Parris points out that casino revenues nationwide have plummeted in the wake of the recession.
“We don’t believe that the sale of alcohol would boost the money that comes in,” Parris said. “Casinos across the country are having trouble. The whole country in general is having trouble.”
Nonetheless, Parris concedes that the promise of larger per capita payments will sway tribal members to vote in favor of the measure.
Besides per capita payments, the idea of maintaining and growing tribal services could also convince people to vote for the alcohol referendum.
“We have basically on the reservation a one-trick pony called the casino, and it’s been terrifically successful,” said Rose. “As a result of that success we’ve entered into programs dependent on the casino revenue stream, things like infrastructure, water and sewer, housing and education for the children.”
But Kilgore said referendum supporters can’t prove that tribal services will benefit from the measure.
“Are they willing to put in writing a guarantee?” asked Kilgore. “No, because they have no idea. Implying that is a smoke promise. It’s not a valid argument, because it’s not proven.”
What Kilgore and others in the opposition camp do say is proven is the negative affect alcohol will have, and already has had, on the tribe. Historically, alcoholism has affected a disproportionate number of Native Americans, and those who oppose the measure say the Cherokee are no different.
“The Cherokee people have over the years had a real problem with alcohol,” said Kilgore, who has experienced firsthand the devastating affects of alcoholism.
“As a former foster parent, I’ve dealt with children that have had to be removed from their homes because of alcohol abuse,” Kilgore said. “I have listened to these children lie in bed at night, crying out for their parents.”
Alcoholism, “effects the individual, their families, and the community as a whole,” Parris said. “Alcohol is a drug, and divorce in families and family abuse goes with it; even killings in the past.”
Supporters of the measure like Rose acknowledge that increased use of alcohol can contribute to those things, but disagree that allowing alcohol at the casino will lead to divorce, abuse or murder.
“Will selling alcohol by the drink in the Cherokee casino increase the consumption of alcohol and cause those things? The answer is absolutely not,” Rose said. “For one thing, alcohol is already there. Secondly, the local people are not going to go to the casino and pay $7 for a drink, when you can get a bottle for that amount in Bryson City (the location of the nearest ABC store).”
Moss said tribal members aren’t the casino’s targeted customers anyway.
“We are not marketing alcohol to tribal members, we’re marketing to our customer base,” Moss said. “It’s an extremely low percentage of tribal members that visit the casino. Very, very low.”
After months of tense debate, the decision of whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino will be left in the hands of voters June 4. The referendum requires a turnout of more than 30 percent of registered voters, and needs a majority vote to pass.
Both sides of the issue are hopeful, but somewhat hesitant to predict the outcome.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the results,” Rose said. “My feeling is that people are recognizing the downturn in the economy and the potential impact on the tribe to continue the services it’s providing and the amount of per capita. A lot of people are saying I’m not in favor, but the greater good will be served.”
Kilgore said he’ll really only know where the tribe stands when all the votes are totaled.
“It’s very difficult to gauge because you will not really know where people stand until they mark their ballot,” Kilgore said. “But I feel very good that the Lord is going to give us a victory.”
A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but has been toyed with several times since then.
1980: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 2 to 1.
1992: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.
1999: Patrick Lambert, head of the gaming commission, convinced tribal council to hold a referendum on alcohol sales. A groundswell of opposition spurred council members to cancel the referendum before it could be held.
2006: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a referendum on alcohol sales at the casino. Opposition swiftly mounted a campaign. TCGE withdrew their request before tribal council had a chance to vote on it.
2008: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a tribal referendum on allowing alcohol sales at the casino only. It narrowly passed tribal council, but was vetoed by Chief Michell Hicks.
2009: Supporters of a referendum submit a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote.