Western: Rags to riches
By Edward Martin
In a forest clearing in the twilight of a winter day, sweating young men, some bloodied, darted about in a millennia-old game of a-ne-jo-di, or “little brother of war.” Less than 2 miles from the lacrosse-like contest played with deerskin balls, neon on the marquee of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino boasted of the day’s $420,000 in payouts.
That was 2004, only seven years after gambling had come to the Qualla Boundary, the 56,000-acre home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. For more than 160 years, descendants of those who escaped the 1838 forced removal of their ancestors, known as the Trail of Tears, had shown they could survive poverty and deprivation. With gaming came a new question: Could the Cherokee survive prosperity?
Today, the answer is yes for the tribe that totals 15,000 and inhabits an area once known as a tourist enclave of rubber tomahawks and fake chiefs in war bonnets. “The people who haven’t been here since they were kids are amazed,” laughs Erik Sneed, an Eastern Band member and its chief financial officer. “It’s completely different than they remember.”
In the 12 years since Business North Carolina detailed the initial impact of gaming on the tribe in a March 2004 cover story, changes have accelerated. In the town of Cherokee, three hotel towers stand where there was one. The gambling floor has doubled in size, and a new 3,000-seat entertainment venue attracts Tony Bennett, Lady Antebellum and other stars.
“That has helped transform us from a somewhat typical, successful tribal casino operation to being a true resort,” Sneed says. In September 2015, the Eastern Band opened a second, $110 million casino complex in Murphy, in Cherokee County on the Tennessee border, that’s expected to draw 1.5 million visitors a year.
The tribe owns the properties, while Harrah’s manages them. In 2015, the Eastern Band cleared about $240 million after expenses, fees and other charges, Sneed says. Half goes to the tribe for public uses, and half goes to its members, including into a trust fund for minors. Per-capita payments totaled about $11,000 per person last year. Payouts to minors, which now typically total about $170,000 less taxes when they reach adulthood, are staggered between ages 18 and 25. “We hope they’re more mature and will use them for college, to buy homes and things like that.”
The impact is eye-popping: The Eastern Band is the state’s largest employer west of Asheville, and the new casino alone employs about 1,000. Unemployment rates, once seasonally 50%, were close to the state average of 5% in July. The tribe opened a $75 million, 20-bed hospital in 2015 — it employs about 400 — and a new $130 million complex of public schools with a football stadium. “For the last three months,” Sneed says, “we’ve been debt free.”
Still, the tribe faces challenges. It needs to diversify beyond gambling and is considering such options as an adventure park for trail biking, zip-lining and other mountain sports. Addressing early fears by elders that gambling would destroy the Cherokee culture and heritage, the tribe has used millions of its profits to acquire and preserve mounds and other archaeological sites, not only on the Qualla Boundary but in neighboring counties.
Western Carolina University enrolled a record 10,806 students this fall. The 4% increase comes two years ahead of a plan to slash tuition at the Cullowhee campus. Under the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan passed this year by state lawmakers, in-state students will pay $500 per semester, compared with about $2,000 now, starting in fall 2018. Out-of-state tuition will decline to $2,500 from $7,000. Lawmakers want to cut student debt: Western Carolina graduates in 2014-15 left campus owing an average of $20,500. The cut-rate tuition plan, which was authored by former state Sen. Tom Apodaca, a WCU graduate, also will be offered at UNC Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.
Because of limited housing, Western Carolina may raise admission standards rather than add large numbers of students. Unlike more urban campuses — Cullowhee has about 9,500 residents and is 53 miles west of Asheville — the availability of housing and ability to recruit faculty limits growth, according to a university statement on the new state program. “Since we manage our growth based in part on capacity, acceptance to WCU will become even more competitive.” Since David Belcher became chancellor in 2011, Western Carolina has added about 1,400 students, a 15% increase.
BREVARD — Camping-trailer maker SylvanSport is expanding into a 50,000- square-foot building, tripling its manufacturing capacity. The project is aided by a $1 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation and funds from Transylvania County for construction of a multitenant building on six acres previously owned by the city of Brevard. The building is slated to open next year.
ASHEVILLE — North American Roofing is moving its headquarters and about 100 administrative jobs to Tampa, Fla. Based here since 1973, the company installs roofs for clients including The Home Depot, Lowe’s and GE. State and local governments in Florida offered $1.2 million in incentives and grants to lure the company.