When it comes to recession, even casinos have trouble beating the odds. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel made money last year, but the annual share of profits to each member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the casino’s owner, dropped slightly to $8,600. Employment has slipped from a peak of 1,750 five years ago to about 1,600.
Those trends shouldn’t last long, General Manager Darold Londo says, because the tribe has embarked on its own economic-stimulus project — a $633 million expansion that will position the casino to become a full-fledged resort. It’s already having a positive effect on the local economy. “There are 1,100 people working on that site right now — from various trades like plumbing and carpentry — who otherwise would not be working except for the tribe’s investment. They’re good jobs, and those people are staying in the area, eating in the area and spending money in the area.”
The opening of the 18-hole Sequoyah National Golf Club in September and the advent of alcoholic-beverage sales at the casino in December have helped soften the recession-driven tourism downturn. The expansion is on track to be completed in 2012, and the first 17 floors of a 21-story hotel tower will open in December. That will push capacity to more than 1,100 rooms, and the accompanying casino expansion will increase gaming space to about 195,000 square feet. It opened in 1997 with 150,000 square feet. The number of games will jump from 3,400 to more than 4,700. An Asian gaming room and noodle bar will cater to a growing influx of ethnic Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese. The size of the performing-arts center will double to 3,000 seats. Seven retail shops, including stores for men’s and women’s clothing, will be added.
The impact of the expansion, though, could be greater than the sum of its numbers. Until now, the complex has been virtually locked out of the meetings-and-conventions business because it couldn’t sell alcohol and lacked nongaming attractions such as golf. A planned 16,000-square-foot spa also will help marketing efforts. “We’re now able to have some conversations with fine-dining establishments that otherwise would have no interest in serving North Carolina,” Londo says. “At the end of the day, we want to be a casino resort.”
Along the way, employment is expected to grow to about 2,400, cementing Harrah’s position as far-western North Carolina’s largest employer. “That’s economic stimulus, long-term. These people are creating a future for themselves.”