Cherokee hopes for dealers as casino expansion debt loomsWritten by Colby Dunn
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Principal Chief Michell Hicks hinted last week at a renewed effort to bring live dealers to Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, in a ceremony renewing the management contract between the Eastern Band of Cherokee and Ceasars Entertainment.
At an event christening the first phase of the casino’s $650 million expansion project, Hicks said the tribe continues to lobby Gov. Bev Perdue to allow live card dealers at Harrah’s. Currently, the state limits the tribe to electronic gambling only.
“We’ll continue to push her to do the right thing,” said Hicks, who is running for a third term for office this year. Hicks said he hoped the governor would wake up and “smell the roses” on the issue, but later said that such negotiations were an ongoing process rather than specific haggling with the state.
“The Eastern Band of Cherokee is continually trying to impress upon all elected officials and state leaders the importance and value of an expanded gaming enterprise,” Hicks said in a later statement. “We maintain a cordial and productive relationship with the Governor’s office and the state legislature officials and look forward to continuing that relationship.”
Negotiations for live dealers and table games — slot machines, craps, roulette and other Las-Vegas style games in addition to live card dealers — stalled last year when a video poker company brought suit against the state. The suit claimed the governor had no legal right to negotiate with the tribe for increased gaming freedom. The same company hamstrung talks in 2009 with a separate suit, which charged that allowing video gambling in Cherokee, but nowhere else in the state, was illegal and unfair.
Harrah’s General Manager Darold Londo said that while the casino wasn’t involved in talks to bring the stepped-up gaming to Cherokee — that’s between the tribe and the state — it would certainly be a boon to the business if it came.
“I’d like to think that we would offer a full-service casino experience,” said Londo. “With our proximity to Atlanta and Charlotte and Knoxville, where you have people that fly to other places to play those games, if we offered those things they could come to Cherokee instead.”
The tribe’s renewed interest in negotiating comes at a time when casino distributions are down — 16 percent according to Hicks — though he and Londo both said they’re hopeful the new expansion, which includes expansive luxury suites for high rollers and is the largest construction project in the Southeast, will crank up revenues again.
As the primary election for principal chief draws closer, however, many in Cherokee are asking how the tribe can pull its focus away from Harrah’s and diversify its revenue portfolio.
Currently, 87 percent of the tribe’s income is generated by Harrah’s. The proceeds are split evenly, with half being divvied up among tribe members and the other half funding tribal operations and programs.
Hicks himself has said that the tribe needs to move away from the casino-as-cash-cow model, and a central tenet of his platform is eradicating the debt.
The Eastern Band now hold almost a billion dollars in debt — $650 million of that is from the major expansion underway at the casino, an endeavor approved by tribal council in 2007.
Critics, including opponents running against Hicks for chief, have questioned whether it was wise to take on so much debt.
Hicks said he has a plan to eradicate the debt completely within the next four years, though he hasn’t spelled out the details of how he’ll do it.
Moving forward, he said, the tribe should look less to gaming and more to its historical traditions, especially arts and crafts.
“To generate gross receipts you’ve got to create business, and we’ve got to change our view of what Cherokee is about,” said Hicks. “We’ve got to get creative by using the thing that we’re better at than anybody else.”
While he conceded that Cherokee couldn’t compete with tourist Meccas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge — they just have less real estate to work with — their selling point is the deep cultural heritage and quality craftsmanship the Cherokee bring to their crafts. This, he said, should be the basis of the new, diversified Cherokee economy.
But even as the call for fiscal diversity is made on all sides this election season, Hicks is still behind the push for live dealers, saying it would bring more jobs and dollars into the economy and help decrease the debt he’s promised to demolish.
New suites cater to the high rollers
The crowning touch of Harrah’s new hotel tower is its range of newly opened luxury suites, reserved for casino high-rollers and VIPs.
The suites feature expansive mountain views, designer furnishings and subtle touches of opulence, like TVs in mirrors, marble logless fireplaces, 5-person Jacuzzis and wrap-around porches. Some even sport names like Crisp Hydration
The 21-story Creek Tower, the third hotel tower on campus, is part of a larger $650 million expansion of the casino.
The expansion includes a 3,000-seat entertainment venue that opened last fall, an 18,000-square-foot spa, Asian gaming room and additional poker room and will double the footprint of the casino floor.
New restaurants and retail stores will bulk out the space, too; Southern kitchen queen Paula Deen installed one of her renowned restaurants there earlier this year, while Italian chain Brio and the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse franchise are scheduled to move in by the end of 2012.
It’s currently the largest hospitality expansion project in the Southeast and, when finished, it will boast the most hotel rooms in the Carolinas.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee contract the casino’s management to Caesars Entertainment, which runs more than 50 casinos and seven golf courses across the globe. Harrah’s Cherokee has been in business since 1997 and opens its doors 24 hours a day.