Sounds overwhelm the senses: a multitude of excited voices, background music, the clanging of bells, and the ringing, beeping cacophony that signals a run of luck for somebody. In an atmosphere closed and darkened and tinged with cigarette smoke, the undercurrents of energy and excitement are almost touchable.
The pace of life in and around Murphy, North Carolina, had quickened. Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel officially opened Monday (September 28) at a low-mountaintop site on 90 acres of tribal trust land just east of the little county-seat town of 1,618 souls.
The response was so overwhelming that by 1:30 p.m. traffic was backed up for miles along the four-lane U.S. 19-74-129. Because cloudy skies threatened and crowds were building, Harrah’s officials cut the ribbon 45 minutes early, said Brooks Robinson. He’s not the former Baltimore Orioles third baseman (“although I’ve played some third base in my time,” he said).
This Brooks Robinson is senior vice president and general manager of the 18-year-old Cherokee Casino Resort in the Qualla Boundary reservation’s Town of Cherokee near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For the time being at least, Robinson is also calling the shots at this new tribal facility (and first North Carolina casino outside a reservation) located 57 miles to the southwest near Murphy, here in Cherokee County. Are you geographically confused enough now?
Robinson was asked, did you expect a crowd this large today?
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “You just look at the size of your building and the number of spaces you have, and then know how many to expect and how many to let in.”
He paused for a moment and then added: “The Cherokee have been running casinos for eighteen years and they know how to analyze.”
Only time will tell whether being home to an Indian gaming casino is good rural strategy for a western North Carolina county of 27,141. Cherokee County has a 17.8 percent poverty rate and a per capita income ($18,340 in 2013 dollars) about a third of the national rate.
The locals’ embrace seems lukewarm at best. We are nine-year Cherokee County residents (after retiring from media in Atlanta) and are involved in church and non-profit activities. During our two hours in the casino on opening day, the only locals we recognized were a pair of friendly, elderly women wearing “Clay-Cherokee Senior Games” T-shirts.
“Oh, we haven’t gambled any,” one of them told us.
We asked, “What do you think of this place?”
“Oh, we think it’s going to help the local economy,” she replied.
Senior VP Robinson seemed taken aback when we asked him whether Cherokee County Commission Chairman C.B. McKinnon, a burly well-digger, or Murphy Mayor Bill Hughes, a retired elementary-school principal, were allowed to speak at the impromptu ribbon-cutting.
Robinson paused and said, “No, Principal Chief Michelle Hicks was the only one to speak.”
Similarly, back in 2013, then Cherokee County Commission Chairman Cal Stiles (still a member today) wasn’t invited to speak during the Oct. 15 groundbreaking that year.
A particular period of non-communication between the Cherokee tribe’s new endeavor and the five-member Cherokee County Commission came during the 12 months of the fiscal year 2013-14. The five commissioners only said the word “casino” twice during that time, according to the approved meeting minutes.
The muted reaction to the casino here is not helped by news that the largest unit of the parent Caesars Entertainment Corp. entered bankruptcy, according to the Jan. 13, 2015 Wall Street Journal.
“Caesars’ efforts to secure a gambling license in Macau failed,” Matt Jarzemsky, Peg Brickley and Kate O’Keeffe wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Over the past decade, the Chinese territory has become the world’s biggest gambling market, with seven times the revenue of the Las Vegas Strip. Though the financial crisis took a toll on rivals MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Las Vegas Sands Corp., revenue from Macau operations has revived their balance sheets.
Meanwhile, Caesars’ debt has limited any expansion to modest projects unlikely to contribute much to its bottom line. And one place where Caesars had been dominant—Atlantic City—went into freefall last year, forcing a handful of casinos to close, including Caesars’ Showboat.
It was surprising to us when popular Michell Hicks did not file in the race this year to be re-elected principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Then it became more clear to us, thanks to Matthew Obsborne’s article in the Sept. 16, 2015, edition of the Cherokee Scout weekly published in Murphy.
The storm of controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins nickname has found its way to western North Carolina,” Osborne wrote. “The Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted to cut all ties with the Redskins in the wake of a perceived endorsement of the team’s nickname by Principal Chief Michell Hicks.
Tribal Council member Teresa McCoy of Big Cove said Friday that endorsement may have come with something in return, saying the tribe has received several Mercedes vans from the Original Americans Foundation, an organization run by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
“Our people and our history are not for sale,” McCoy said. “(Cutting ties with the Redskins) is one piece of legislation that made me proud of this council.”
McCoy said the vote to cut ties with the team did not include sending back vans that she said the Eastern Band had received. She was not sure if it would come up at the last council meeting before the change of power to Principal Chief-elect Patrick Lambert on Oct. 5.
Hicks said through a spokesperson that he had no comment on the allegation,” according to the Scout article.
On casino opening day near the Food Market, as the clutch of six fast-food outlets is called, a middle-aged woman from Marietta, Georgia, said she and her husband were at a nearby RV park. They decided to take a trip to the casino at Cherokee, then remembered the Murphy facility was opening.
“We drove right in at 1:30,” she said. “I hope the machines loosen up a little.”
Was she losing? “I’m holding my own,” she admitted. “Good luck to you.”
At the Starbucks coffee station, two employees were discussing the atmosphere.
“I don’t know if I can handle the cigarette smoke,” one observed.
“You’ll get used to it,” her companion advised. “I’ve been in this business for 17 years and I don’t smell it anymore.”
Tom Bennett is a retired writer and editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.Lorraine Bennett is former editorial manager of CNN and a former bureau chief for Los Angeles Times and KABC-TV in Los Angeles.