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First-year estimates show $100 million in profits at Valley River, $50 million in losses at Cherokee
When it comes to gambling in Western North Carolina, the landscape is shifting to one tribal and casino leaders bet will have hard-to-ignore impacts on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, not to mention the job and economic hands being dealt to many of the state’s “far west” counties.
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Cherokee Valley River Casino, a second partnership between the Tribe and Caesars Entertainment, is slated to open in Cherokee County about a year from now, said Lumpy Lambert, general manager. “Things are well underway and going well,” he said recently about construction at the site, which is located near the town of Murphy. According to Lambert, the new casino is scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2015. The accompanying 300-room hotel is scheduled to open shortly after the casino.
Lambert said the new casino would have about 108,000 square feet of floor space, which would include between 1,100 and 1,200 slot machines and between 50 and 75 table games.
“We are in the process of fine tuning the layout,” he said.
The Valley River Casino plans to open with live dealers, a feat that took its sister casino, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino — located in the town of Cherokee in Jackson County near the Swain County line — 15 years to accomplish.
The new casino is expected to be a primary economic driver in the far western counties of North Carolina, just as Harrah’s Cherokee is said to have been in Swain and Jackson counties. A June 2011 study by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill estimated that Harrah’s Cherokee Casino contributed $300 million annually to Jackson and Swain counties. The report stated that, in 2009, the casino was responsible for 5 percent of all employment (1,647 employees – including 80 percent who were not enrolled EBCI members). The study also estimated that it contributed eight percent of all wage and salary disbursements in Jackson and Swain counties, with the total estimated employee compensation impact for the two counties to be $74.8 million.
“We anticipate the same kind of economic impact here,” Lambert said, noting that the casino and hotel would employ between 800 and 900 people with an estimated payroll of between $32 million and $39 million.
“We believe there will be a sizable ripple effect in the community, just like the one here (in Cherokee),” he said.
When ground was broken at the site last October, there was a lot of mention in the media about a temporary casino that would operate while the primary facility was under construction. But, according to Lambert, that is not the case.
“The idea of opening a temporary facility was put to rest early in the process, so no, we will not have one,” Lambert told Carolina Public Press.
Lambert said that hiring for executive-level employees would likely begin in the third quarter of this year and that hiring at the manager level would begin by the fourth quarter of this year or early first quarter of next year. He noted that dealers and other live-table staff are subject to a 12-week training period, “so we will start hiring in the third quarter of this year and roll right into the opening, ensuring that we have everyone in place and trained by that time.”
Whiting Turner Contracting Company and Owle Construction LLC are the contractors for the $110 million project. The casino’s architectural firm, Cuningham Group Architecture Inc., is the same as for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
Lambert noted that, “because of our utilization of TERO, many of the sub-contractors would include crews that have worked on the casino and the recent expansion in Cherokee.” TERO is the Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance, which guarantees, “that all employers who are engaged in operating a business on reservations give preference to qualified Indians in all aspects of employment, contracting and other business activities.”
While the new Valley River Casino is only about an hour west of Harrah’s Cherokee, it is also an hour closer to major markets like Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Birmingham, Ala. Lambert said that rather than “cannibalizing” Harrah’s Cherokee, the new facility would create more options for gamers.
“Even with 1,108 rooms in Cherokee, there are times when we are constrained, when it’s difficult for people to get reservations,” he said. “Having another option will free up some inventory.”
“We have a lot of known Caesar’s customers in the region that haven’t visited Cherokee,” he added. “We still have the opportunity to capture untapped visitation, being closer to those major markets should help.”
He noted that guests from those markets might prefer a day trip to Murphy rather than driving the extra hour to Cherokee, where overnight lodging might be required.
The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise also concluded that the new casino and hotel would add to the Tribe’s coffers. TCGE, which is an entity of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians responsible for the oversight, strategies and development of all bingo and casino gaming for the Tribe, projections call for $100 million in profits in the first year of operations at the Cherokee Valley River Casino. Its study also estimated a nearly $48 million loss in revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, so the Tribe would see $50 million in overall profits.
Lambert, who was pegged as general manager for Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River casino in January, is a tribal member and has been employed at Harrah’s Cherokee since it opened, in 1997. Before this promotion, he was assistant general manager of casino operations in Cherokee. He has been at the forefront of a lot of firsts at Harrah’s Cherokee, such as implementing live table games, overseeing Cherokee’s first World Series of Poker Circuit event and guiding the latest $650 million expansion project.
“It’s been a terrific ride,” he said, “I’ve been surrounded by a great team and I’ve had great mentors; I’ve prepared myself and I feel good about this move. I’m excited about getting it up and running and watching it grow and watching the community grow with it.”