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REGIONALREPORT Western

The Cherokees settle upclientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/09/West_RegionIntro_Sept13.jpg
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was dealt a good hand in 2012. The state signed a 30-year compact with the tribe that allows table games with dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel and opens the possibility of two more casinos on tribal land. Also, work was completed on the $650 million expansion of Harrah’s, managed by Las Vegas-based Caesar’s Entertainment Corp., doubling gambling space to 150,000 square feet and the number of hotel rooms to about 1,100. Both the compact and expansion mean more revenue for the tribe, though Principal Chief Michell Hicks won’t say how much. He did talk with Business North Carolina about how the Cherokees are investing their share in the community. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
 
How has the addition of table games affected business at the casino and hotel?
They’ve helped increase revenue about 15% over last year. There are about 140 tables now and plans for more. There has also been an expansion of the demographics of our guests. We’re seeing more men and younger men.

The tribe is planning a second casino in Murphy. What’s the status of that project?
We expect to begin moving dirt in September, weather permitting. Construction is projected to take 18 months, but if all goes well it could open by the end of 2014. It’s a $110 million investment and will include about 300 hotel rooms, a couple of restaurants, an entertainment venue and about 60,000 square feet of gaming space, which will include live dealers.

How many people are employed in the tribe’s gambling operations?
We’re at 4,600 employees, and it continues to grow. By this time next year, we should be around 5,000. When the casino in Murphy is finished, we should be up to 5,500. Some of our employees are commuting an hour and a half to work. We pay good wages — a dealer can earn $45,000 a year — plus benefits, which I believe are second to none in the state. That’s helping us recruit and retain employees.
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How has money from the casino been spent in the community?
We allocate funds based on need. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has disbursed $51 million of grants to create new businesses and economic opportunities. A quarter of the casino’s operating revenue in 2010 — about $80 million — went to local construction companies for capital improvements.

How big is the market in western North Carolina for casino gambling? Is there more room for growth?
It remains to be seen. Early forecasts say there is a lot of room for growth. We have an opportunity to expand on a site in Robbinsville, but that is on hold till we see what the casino in Murphy brings. We’re keeping our eyes and ears open.
 
Briefs
 
FLETCHER — Continental Automotive Systems, a division of Hanover, Germany-based Continental AG, will expand its local plant, which makes brake parts, adding 40 jobs to its 626 and investing more than $35 million over five years. The average annual wage for the jobs will be $49,450, more than the Henderson County average of $34,202.

ASHEVILLE  —
Developers broke ground on The Retreat at Hunt Hill, a $20 million, 180-unit apartment complex slated to open in February. Sullivan’s Island, S.C.-based Kassinger Development Group, Greensboro-based Richardson Properties and Asheville-based Pulliam Properties have completed about $85 million of development here since 2008.

WILKESBORO —
Key City Furniture closed, shuttering its upholstery factory and laying off 97. The company had seen decreased demand for its high-end products.

ASHEVILLE —
Forest Commercial Bank will merge with Spartanburg, S.C.-based Carolina Alliance Bank by the first quarter of 2014. It will operate as Carolina Alliance Bank, be headquartered in Spartanburg and have $385 million of assets.