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.”
How much more?
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.