Gambling, proponents predicted, would be the biggest boon to western North Carolina since the other one — Daniel — crossed the Blue Ridge. Sin, critics cried, calling it the road to perdition when Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened in 1998. However, the smart money now calls it the path to prosperity: A new report by Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians shows the casino has grossed $1.6 billion in 10 years. The Cherokees own the casino and, except for a management fee to the Las Vegas-based operator, pocket the profit, but the economic impact reaches beyond the Qualla Boundary, as the 56,000-acre Indian reservation is officially known.
“It attracts people, and people bring money,” says Jim Smith, a professor at Western Carolina University’s Institute for the Economy and the Future. “That’s like replacing 10 or so paper companies that have gone bankrupt out here or replacing a few thousand manufacturing jobs that have disappeared.” About 3.6 million people visited last year, catered to by more than 1,900 casino, hotel and other workers. Only about 360 tribal members — one in five employees — were on the $73 million casino payroll last year, spokesman Charles Pringle says. The rest of the work force came from surrounding counties. “Our unemployment was 5.8% but started dropping the day the casino opened,” says Rick Fulton, chairman of the Jackson County Economic Development Commission. The average rate was 3.7% in 2007.
The tribe has launched a $633 million expansion to be completed in 2013. It will add a third hotel tower — increasing the number of rooms from about 500 to more than 1,000 — parking decks and more gaming space. “Everything here will pretty much double in size,” Pringle says. There’s still opposition to feeding prosperity with gambling proceeds, and not only among Cherokees and other residents of the traditionally conservative region. Gov. Mike Easley has rebuffed the tribe’s efforts to allow table gaming — only electronic gambling is allowed. Smith doesn’t know why. “There’s never been the slightest whiff of any corruption, untoward activity or shenanigans.” He expects the casino to grow, and he should know. It has supplanted his university, which has about 1,100 jobs, as western North Carolina’s largest employer.