The Eastern Band just recently approved plans to build a second casino on an 85-acre tract just off the four-lane highway in Murphy. The $110 million casino will create about 800 high-paying jobs in a county plagued by 12 percent unemployment.
“Unemployment is high in our neck of the woods and in Cherokee County. The jobs are desperately needed,” said Joel Setzer, the head of a 10-county division of DOT in the western mountains.
For that reason, the state agreed to construct and pay for a bridge and road necessary to take casino-goers from the four-lane to the planned site of Murphy casino about half a mile away.
“This project was necessary to secure the enterprise, and it creates so many jobs at such a high wage that the state government did offer the incentive,” Setzer said.
The estimated cost of the project is between $7 million and $11 million. Work on the bridge and road could begin this fall, around the same time the Eastern Band hopes to start building a temporary casino facility on the site.
The tribe will erect a makeshift casino that will operate while the permanent 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot building is under construction. Members of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, a five-member board that oversees the tribe’s casino operations, hope to open the temporary facility by spring or early summer next year, and the state transportation department has set its project deadline around that.
“We’re looking at something like June that the new road would be needed, June 2014,” Setzer said. “That is what we want to target. We don’t want them to open on this old gravel road.”
The permanent casino will open a year after that.
As soon as the Eastern Band’s Tribal Council approved the casino project earlier this month, DOT representatives contacted the tribe to start laying out plans for the bridge and half-mile entrance road.
“As soon as they approved it, we called and tried to get ahead of it so no one will be disappointed if, when the casino opens, the road is not finished,” Setzer said.
The Eastern Band is not the only group to benefit from a taxpayer-funded road. N.C. DOT is spending $1.7 million to build a new road and upgrading existing roads in Henderson County where Sierra Nevada is opening a new brewery — again because of the number of quality jobs that the company will create. The beer makers’ total investment in the brewery is about $107 million.
Such projects, which benefit local and state economies, are given precedence over others. The state already has a long to-do list of projects, ranked in order of importance. A complex formula is used to rank road projects, and it usually takes years for a project to work their way up the priority list from conception to actual construction.
“But it does not account for something that comes up that is in the best interest of the state,” Setzer said of the formula.
To skip the line, companies must apply for the incentive through DOT and submit a letter of endorsement from the N.C. Department of Commerce and information about the project’s economic benefits.
Other considerations include: the average projected wage, the economic vitality of the county the project is located in, the amount of the initial investment, tax benefit to the state, job creation and whether it has support from local governments.