Cherokee County small-business owners anxious about potential economic changes
By: Jon Ostendorff
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is building a new casino near Murphy that will employ about 900 people. / Special to the Citizen-Times
Jackie Burt spent 30 years driving tractor-trailers before deciding to make her side job of refinishing furniture into a full-time business.
She got into a building on Main Street in this Cherokee County town about a year ago.
Burt wanted to have her doors open ahead of the new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel which is under construction a few miles down the road. The casino, run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is scheduled to debut next year.
With 900 jobs and an investment of $110 million, it will be the biggest change to the county’s economy since 1940, when the federal government built Hiwassee Dam.
Burt and other local business owners are hopeful about new business in town. At the same time, they are concerned tourists won’t stray far from the Harrah’s property and that the casino will attract bigger development like national chains.
Business and government leaders have been in a series of meetings this week about Cherokee County’s economic future and how the casino will factor in, among other issues. The unemployment rate here is among the highest in North Carolina.
Burt’s hopes for Andrews — population about 1,700 — are modest. “I hope we will be the ice cream, family, mom-and-pop shops and let Murphy have the big businesses,” she said.
In Murphy, the county’s largest town, some people are not expecting a big change with the new tourists.
“We might get them in and out of town,” said artist Dianne Gardner. “They are going to go there to gamble and eat and watch a show. But they have to stop for gas. They might forget to eat and come out and eat here.”
Burt decided to open Appalachian Memories in Andrews after talking to her family about the possibilities that might come from the customers the new casino will attract.
“Absolutely we wanted to get in on the ground floor,” she said.
Her business takes solid wood furniture and applies new paint and coverings to give the pieces a new look. So far, even without the casino traffic, she’s had enough work to stay busy.
In the past year, she’s watched others walk in and out of the storefronts in Andrews, some of them vacant, looking for a good place to start a business.
Next door at Corner Coffee Co., owner Jon Silver is also bracing for change.
He opened the retail shop in October. He’s been roasting coffee beans for more than a year and before that worked at a Christian youth camp.
Silver had heard for years that a casino was coming.
“I think it is obviously going to move the needle some, but if we are not prepared for it, if we don’t do what we need to do as small, local businesses, then at some point we are going to get pushed out by the big names and the chains,” he said.
A series of meetings in the county this week under the Opt In Opportunity Initiative were aimed, in part, at the concern. The goal was to shape a vision for the future of the southwestern North Carolina region. The county was also working on an economic plan that factored in the casino.
At a meeting Silver attended Tuesday, business owners raised concern that Caesars Entertainment, which runs the casino in Cherokee, designs its venues so that guests never have to leave. Dining and lodging are all on site.
Even so, the casino in Cherokee has meant more money for surrounding businesses, according to a study by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the UNC Chapel Hill in 2011. The study was funded in part by the Eastern Band.
The business is worth $380 million to the local economy, including the Asheville metro area. It spent $4.4 million with off-site vendors in 2009, according to the study. It accounts for 8 percent of all wages and 5 percent of all jobs in the two-county area surrounding the reservation.
Silver says some in Andrews think the new casino is going to end all of the county’s economic woes. He doubts that will be the case but wants the business community to be ready to capitalize on what it can.
“If we don’t, the money that is going to come in, and the people that come in, they are going to want services and the only thing that is going to fill that void are the national chains and I don’t think that is going to do what we want for our economy,” he said.
This corner of Western North Carolina is in a tough spot, both literally and figuratively.
Transportation infrastructure has been a problem for a long time. There is just no fast way to get to Murphy from other parts of the mountain region.
Cherokee County is about two hours west of Asheville, and to get here from the east, you have to travel through the Nantahala River Gorge. On a winter day, the trip is easy. But in the summer, tourists there for boating on the Nantahala River join with rafting company buses to clog the two-lane road through the gorge.
The community is part of a tri-state area of about 100,000 people, said Josh Carpenter, Cherokee County economic development director. The economic forces mostly come from Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., he said.
The region’s unemployment level has been high for about seven years, standing now at 10.5 percent.
The dam in 1940 was an investment of $400 million in today’s dollars. It employed thousands of people for about five years, Carpenter said. After that, manufacturing took off from about 1960 to around 1995.
NAFTA hit the county hard. Mills closed and downsized just as the second-home construction market heated up. But the recession killed the construction jobs.
The casino investment is $110 million, he said. The long-term impact is about $40 million annually in payroll.
With the 900 full-time equivalent workers at the casino, and the 500 jobs associated with the casino, tourism for the first time will rival manufacturing. There are about 1,200 people working in manufacturing today.
And it will take at least 900 people to build the casino, he said, meaning good construction jobs over the next year or so.
Carpenter said now is a good time to start a business in Cherokee County, because the casino would mean a demand for restaurants, hotels and workforce housing.
He said the casino could mean state and federal transportation departments will take a harder look at stalled projects like Corridor K, an Asheville-to-Chattanooga expressway on the books since the 1960s. The state is already building a bridge from U.S. 23-74 to the property. Rail is also an option, between Murphy and Asheville for passengers and freight. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad used to stop in Andrews but now only goes to the gorge.
Improving the transportation between Asheville and Murphy would help tie the local economy closer to the state economy, he said.
But Murphy is closer to the capitals of three other states than Raleigh. And that is a big part of the reason Eastern Band is building its second North Carolina casino there.
Caesars Entertainment knows its customers, said Lumpy Lambert, assistant general manager of operations at the casino in Cherokee who will become the general manager at the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel.
Caesars — to which the tribe pays a management fee to run its business — knows there are plenty of people who live in Atlanta’s suburbs who have gambled at other Caesars properties but never traveled to Cherokee. It is betting that having a casino within easy day-trip distance will attract some of those customers. The new casino will be the same distance from Knoxville, Tenn., as the casino in Cherokee.
The hotel on the property will be seven stories with 300 rooms. The casino will offer about 1,200 slot machines and 40-70 table games. There will be a 24-hour café and a food court.
Lambert will hold the distinction of being the first member of the tribe to become a modern casino general manager, although he said a member of the tribe did manage a much smaller gambling operation on the reservation in the mid-1990s.
He downplays this significance, but he has been a rising star. He helped lead the Cherokee casino through its $650 million expansion and led the implementation of card dealers and table games, all of which have increased revenue.
He said his previous experience, and his mentors and the team at the casino in Cherokee, have prepared him for the new job.
“I’m very excited about the project,” he said. “I’m looking forward to opening and creating the experiences that we expect to have and really looking forward to getting a team going and showcasing this property as it grows.”