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Picture This, June 2012 — Double Down

 Double down

Construction nears completion on the Cherokee casino’s $650 million bid to be more than a one-stop gambling shop.

Bingo was the beginning. In the early ’90s, tourists would drift into a small building just up Paint Town Road from the rubber-tomahawk shops on the souvenir strip in Cherokee, play and leave. The big time arrived in 1997, when what’s now Las Vegas-based Caesar’s Entertainment Corp. opened Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. More than 3 million people came its first fiscal year. Many were day-trippers, heading home after a few hours of gambling. Now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is completing a $650 million expansion, betting that turning the casino and hotel into a destination resort will pay off big.

“You’ll be able to come, stay and never even eat in the same place over the course of two or three days,” says Ahinawake Littledave, the casino’s marketing manager. The largest hospitality project under way in the Southeast, the expansion is adding a 532-room tower that will make Harrah’s the biggest hotel in North Carolina, with 1,108 rooms. It’s also building four restaurants along with a VIP lounge, spa and Asian-gaming and digital-poker rooms. The casino’s main gaming floor will double to 150,000 square feet, and a 3,000-seat live-entertainment center has already opened. New York-based Turner Construction Co. is the contractor, and Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group is the architect. The tribe also opened an 18-hole golf course near Cherokee three years ago.

Started in 2007 and wrapping up in November, the project represents more than metal and mortar. Economists at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise in Chapel Hill say turning Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel into a resort destination will smooth out the seasonal ups and downs of tourism that create high fall and winter unemployment. It will also add about 700 jobs to the 1,700 it had. Harrah’s was already the largest employer in western North Carolina. The impact on the local economy will swell too. In 2010, the latest fiscal year they studied, the economists estimated Harrah’s pumped about $386 million into a seven-county region that once was among the state’s poorest. Harrah’s manages the casino for the Cherokees for an undisclosed percentage of revenue, estimated at about 5%. The remainder is split between tribal government and the roughly 13,500 members, who each get about $8,000 a year.

— Edward Martin