And the Catawba call

Published March 21, 2020

By Brad Crone

In the high stakes poker game between Indian tribes about casino rights in North Carolina the Catawba nation have called their bet.

Last week, the Catawba nation announced they have received clearance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs authority to proceed with the construction of a multi-million dollar casino on 17 acres of tribal land in Cleveland County, near Kings Mountain.

This news was a gut blow to the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, who have been in the casino gambling business since the late 1990s.  The threat posed by the Catawba is real because of the economic damage it could do to the Cherokee people.

The Cherokee have used the proceeds from their two casinos to improve the lives of their tribe, including major investments in their schools, healthcare system and infrastructure such as high-speed internet. Just last year, the Cherokee announced a new $40 million drug-rehabilitation center for The Qualla Boundry.  Today, every Cherokee citizen receives up to $14,000 a year in dividends from the casino operations.

The Catawba casino will be a major threat to the Cherokee because it will be pulling customers from their top two markets — Atlanta and Charlotte.  There is little doubt that the competition will have a significant impact on the Cherokee nation.

On the flip side, there is little doubt that the Catawba casino will be a major economic boom for Cleveland County, creating as many as 3,000 new jobs.  Kings Mountain and Shelby have suffered the past two decades since the loss of jobs due to NAFTA and the shutdown of traditional industries such as textiles, furniture and other light manufacturing jobs.

It seems that Cherokee Chief Richard Sneed and his team were caught totally off-guard by the news.  Their PR and lobbying people had been putting on the street that there was no way the Bureau of Indian Affairs would approve the North Carolina casino and doing such would be a huge issue within the nationally recognized tribes.

But with the support of major political players such as Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis, the Bureau of Indian Affairs granted the Catawba the authority to proceed.

The next major hurdle for the Catawba will be passing a gambling compact agreement with the Governor and State Legislature.  However, with strong support in the State House, the Catawba have shown they know how to get things done in the halls of government.  

In the past major gaming compact, the Cherokee dedicated a massive amount of money dedicated to their mental health care system in Western North Carolina.  It will be interesting to see how Governor Cooper negotiates with the Catawba to get a portion of the casino funds for the public treasury.

Here’s what you need to watch as this issue plays out:

1.  The Cherokee will mount a major offensive to stop any gaming compact with the Governor and State Legislature.  
2. There will be a lot of pressure on the Catawba to affiliate with a recognized gaming operator to ensure confidence with state officials that the gaming operations will be legitimate and acceptable standards within the gaming industry. The idea that the Catawba plan to operate their casino without a major gaming partner is creating some apprehension with lawmakers and policy makers.
3. There will also be considerable pressure on the Cherokee to stop their protest and work out a joint operations agreement with the Catawba to protect their market-share and demonstrate a willingness of cooperation.  But don’t bet on it.  Throughout their history, the Cherokee nation has been an independent lot — not interested in the welfare of other nations, only in the survival and advancement of their own tribe.  In the past, that has served the Cherokee tribe well — but we are looking at a new day for casino gaming in North Carolina.
4. Will the Cherokee overplay their hand?