Catawbas seek federal OK for casino land in NC

jzou@heraldonline.comSeptember 9, 2013 

Artist's rendering of the Catawba Indian Nation's proposed "full-scale entertainment venue" in Kings Mountain, N.C., which would include a casino, hotel, restaurants and retail stores.

CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C., CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

— The Catawba Indian Nation is forging ahead with plans for a North Carolina casino complex and has sought to secure land for the project, the tribe announced Monday.

The Catawbas have filed an application with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to secure 16 acres in Kings Mountain, about an hour from the tribe’s York County reservation, Chief Bill Harris said.

The application is the first step in developing the project, which tribal leaders say would include a casino, hotel, multiple restaurants and retail shopping venues.

The Catawbas face significant opposition to their efforts to build a casino in North Carolina.

More than 100 North Carolina lawmakers signed a letter last week to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in an effort to block the tribe’s efforts. The federal agency must take the lands into a trust for gaming to occur there.

To operate a top-level gaming facility, federal law requires that it take place on a reservation or tribal lands held in trust by the United States under an agreement with the state, which typically includes a revenue-sharing arrangement. The state determines what type of gaming is allowed and the National Indian Gaming Commission also must sign off.

The federally recognized tribe also has faced pushback from South Carolina lawmakers when it tried to pursue large-scale gaming in the state, which currently bans gambling aside from the state lottery and departing boat cruises.

Gaming is legal in North Carolina, where the Cherokee Nation has operated a casino since 1997 under an exclusive state compact. The Catawbas would have to obtain similar approval if plans for casino plans to move forward.

Harris announced the news during a weekend tribal meeting, calling the project “an entertainment resort destination for the Carolinas.”

The positive impact the casino would have is undeniable, Harris said, citing a report that estimates it would create 4,330 permanent jobs and an additional 1,330 jobs in Cleveland County, N.C.

“5,000 people for any state is a lot of employment in these economic times,” Harris said, pointing out the tribe has close to 3,000 members and faces high unemployment.

Information about the proposed casino has been posted on the Cleveland County Chamber of Commerce website, www.clevelandchamber.org, which includes an economic impact study and an artist’s rendering of what it might look like. Also posted were copies of letters from local leaders to legislators, expressing support for the casino.

Chamber President Michael Chrisawn said the chamber and the Catawbas have been in talks for months on the secretive project. He said the project would be a “tremendous boon” to Cleveland County, which continues to face high unemployment.

Throughout their proposal, Catawba leaders compared what they want to do with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in Cherokee, N.C.

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” Harris said. “What we’re looking to do is mimic what Cherokee has done.”

Gaming in S.C.

Meanwhile, the Catawbas have taken a multi-pronged approach to gaming in South Carolina and is exploring two different projects.

Harris expects to open a Catawba bingo hall on Cherry Road in Rock Hill later this year. Bingo is not considered gambling under state law, and is exempt from the ban.

The Catawbas also are awaiting a court date from the state Supreme Court in their ongoing quest to build a casino in York County. The Catawbas estimated the project would generate millions of dollars in revenue and employ up to 4,000 people.

Plans stalled when lawmakers pointed to the statewide ban on gambling, but the Catawbas contend they have gambling rights under a 1993 state settlement.

While York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said he remains opposed to gambling facilities in South Carolina, he said the proposed North Carolina site doesn’t interest him.

“It doesn’t involve South Carolina or York County,” he said. “It’s their business.”

State Sen. Wes Hayes agreed that the Kings Mountain project is out of the South Carolina leaders’ hands, but he will continue to do what he can to encourage North Carolina officials to block it.

“I’m adamantly opposed to it, but I recognize it’s a North Carolina and or federal decision,” Hayes said. “The proximity to York County couldn’t be much closer.”

The Charlotte Observer contributed.

Jie Jenny Zou •  803-329-4062

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