York County's Catawbas make case for N.C. casino

rrothacker@charlotteobserver.com jfrank@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2013 

The Catawba Indian Nation says a 1993 settlement allows the federal government to designate land in North Carolina as a reservation, the first step toward building a new casino in Cleveland County that has spurred fierce opposition from N.C. Republican and Democratic leaders.

The assertion is made in the York County-based tribe’s application to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to put the noncontiguous lands in federal trust as part of its right to a 3,600-acre reservation. The application was obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The application confirms the Catawba Indian Nation’s intent to open a gambling facility on the property but offers few details about the types of games that would be offered or the investors behind the project. The Aug. 30 filing also indicates that the Catawbas reached an agreement to buy land in North Carolina in May, earlier than previously known.

The application notes that the tribe’s “service area” includes several counties in North Carolina, including Cleveland County, and that its current reservation lands are well under the limit at 1,006 acres. The tribe says the 16-acre property, just off Interstate 85 outside Kings Mountain, N.C., would be used for an “entertainment complex” that will include gaming “to the extent permissible under relevant law.”

“This project is of great importance to the Tribe, which has struggled to build a tribal economy,” according to the application, which the tribe announced in September and has touted as a source of thousands of jobs for an economically depressed region.

The ability of the Catawbas, based east of Rock Hill, to expand across the state line into North Carolina has been opposed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper and a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers who say it could open the door to other out-of-state tribes bringing gaming into North Carolina.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which operates a casino in Western North Carolina, also opposes the move.

“I think it’s a bad idea for our state,” Cooper said in a recent interview. “We are busily trying to shut down video poker parlors all across the state, and I don’t think we need another operation like that to stimulate the economy. There are other industries we should recruit.”

John Rustin, the president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, which opposes gambling, reviewed the application and called it “baseless.”

“By entering into this (1993) agreement and coming to a settlement with respect to the tribal lands … the tribe was essentially extinguishing its rights for future claims to lands anywhere in the country,” he said.

The language of the settlement refers nearly exclusively to South Carolina and is not applicable north of the state line, Rustin said, echoing similar arguments from lawmakers. In the application, however, the tribe says the settlement imposes requirements on the acquisition of noncontiguous lands only in South Carolina.

Elizabeth Harris, a spokeswoman for the Catawbas, said the tribe’s settlement gives it a “unique opportunity” that other tribes don’t have.

“The misconception is that other tribes will try to bring gaming to North Carolina, but there are stringent federal processes in place that prohibit that from happening,” she said. “Our tribe is the only tribe who can put land into trust in North Carolina besides the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

The tribe is thankful for the “outpouring of support” it has received during the process, she added.

Tribe lines up supporters

The Catawba Nation is a federally recognized tribe with roughly 2,800 members. The tribe has previously sought to build a gaming operation on its 700-acre reservation along the Catawba River, but that effort has been tied up in court. The tribe also has plans to reopen a bingo hall at a new location on Cherry Road in Rock Hill.

The tribe has found strong support for the casino from local officials in Cleveland County and Kings Mountain, which have struggled with high unemployment. The Catawbas commissioned an economic study that said the $339 million project could bring more than 4,000 permanent jobs to the county.

The application includes letters of support from a former secretary of the interior and former congressional staffers from committees that dealt with Indian Affairs.

In his letter, Manuel Lujan, secretary of the interior from 1989 to 1993, said he had concerns about the 1993 settlement because it sold out the tribe’s “long-term interests.” Although he said the state of South Carolina contended it was granting the Catawbas a “monopoly on high stakes gaming” in the state, he outlines ways the state eroded this advantage over time, including outlawing video poker.

Now, Lujan says, the Interior Department has the ability to rectify this situation.

“In a sense, the Tribe was poorly treated by South Carolina in the negotiation and implementation of the Catawba Settlement Act, but in a very real way has negotiated a much better relationship with the State of North Carolina,” Lujan writes.

The two former congressional staffers – Patricia Zell and Howard Fabrizio – also urged the Department of Interior to support the application, noting the tribe secured “important rights in North Carolina” and the ability to create a reservation of up to 3,600 acres.

Including North Carolina counties in the tribe’s “service area” was a “recognition by Congress that the Tribe, whose current reservation is located on the border between the two states, historically and in terms of its aboriginal lands, is as much a North Carolina tribe as it is a South Carolina tribe,” they wrote.

The application provides details on the property the Catawbas plan to use for the casino, which is a 16-acre portion of a 44-acre parcel off Dixon School Road, as previously reported by the Observer and the (Raleigh) News & Observer. The application includes a real estate purchase and sale agreement with the owner, a company called Roadside Truck Plaza. The May agreement says the purchase price hasn’t been determined, but an amendment gives the parties a year to come to terms.

The 249 pages of material provided under the Freedom of Information Act request provide few details about the Catawbas’ gaming plans.

Attorneys for the Catawba Nation have previously told the Observer and News & Observer that a settlement with the federal government and a 26-year-old Supreme Court decision would allow the tribe to offer a wide range of games, if U.S. officials give the necessary approvals. The tribe says it would like to reach a compact with North Carolina to share gaming revenue, but that it’s not a requirement.

Under the 1993 agreement with the government, the tribe is not subject to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Under that law, the Catawbas would need state approval for Class 3 gaming, which includes casino-style card games. The application says the tribe will pursue gaming allowed under the “relevant law” but “not under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

An attorney for the Catawbas has said it can take six to eight years for a tribe to receive approval to place land in trust but that the tribe has faced shorter wait times because of its settlement, ranging from nine months to two years. Any decision on the land could also be subject to legal action.

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