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Wednesday, 02 December 2009 14:31

Compromise ends tug-of-war over who will be Harrah’s liquor distributor

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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.

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