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.”