KINGS MOUNTAIN, NC — For years, the Catawba Indian Nation has been wrestling with South Carolina officials over its bid to build a gambling casino that could generate millions in revenue and create thousands of jobs.
Now the South Carolina-based tribe is looking at building a casino along a busy interstate highway just across the state line in North Carolina.
But the proposal is drawing fire from North Carolina lawmakers, who promise to fight it – even though the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians already operates a bustling casino in the western part of that state.
One concern is that the Catawbas – unlike the Cherokees – are based outside of North Carolina. If the Catawbas were allowed to open a casino in North Carolina, that could pave the way for other tribes, said N.C. House Speaker Pro Temp Paul Stam, R-Wake.
He was among the more than 100 state House members who recently signed a letter opposing any attempt by a federally recognized tribe from outside North Carolina to build a casino with land inside the state.
“Just think about it, there are hundreds of tribes and if any tribe in the nation could just buy 10 acres in North Carolina and put a casino on it, it could be casino nation,” Stam said.
Cleveland County leaders say local officials met with an adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory in July to talk about the tribe's proposal to build a casino along Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain, about 25 miles south of Charlotte. The McCrory administration later played down the idea.
Catawba Chief Bill Harris and spokeswoman Elisabeth Harris did not return several phone calls or emails from The Associated Press.
The tribe has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get some form of gambling, but has failed at most every turn.
The tribe signed a 1993 agreement with the state and federal governments in which it agreed to drop a lawsuit claiming that broken treaties dating back to when Andrew Jackson was president meant they should get hundreds of square miles of land. In exchange, the tribe was given its current reservation in York County, S.C., and permission to open two bingo halls as well as to any additional gambling allowed by the state. They were not included in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the 1988 federal law that allows other tribes to run casinos, because they were not a federally recognized tribe at the time.
The tribe opened a bingo hall in Rock Hill, S.C., but competition from the state lottery eventually overtook it. And in a story that has repeated itself several times, the tribe was rejected by a handful of local governments when it tried to find a place for the second bingo parlor.
In recent years, the Catawbas have turned their attention to building a casino, saying that because state law allows gambling cruises out into international waters, gambling should also by legal within the tribe's sovereign borders. Their first choice was on land in York County near their reservation, but local officials and the state refused to back the tribe's plans. The Catawbas sued, but a judge threw the suit out. The tribe is appealing that decision.
Catawba leaders insist the 1993 agreement isn't the end of negotiations, but instead was the settlement to a lawsuit. They have vowed to fight to get the rights they think they deserve. There are 2,800 members of the tribe in the state.
They have promised to share a sizable share of their gambling revenue with state and local governments. The tribe's lawsuit suggests the casino could make up to $100 million for the state government.
Ronnie Hawkins, chairman of the Cleveland County commission, said it was still too early to “talk about anything.” Other officials said the same.
But one thing is clear: the casino could create much-needed jobs in a struggling county. Once thriving with textile plants, the county's unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in July.
Meanwhile, 130 miles to the northwest, Harrah's Cherokee Hotel and Casino employs 2,300 people and pumps about $390 million a year into the local economy, according to a 2011 University of North Carolina study.
And last year, the N.C. General Assembly approved letting that casino offer live poker and other table games. Harrah's officials say a good dealer can earn $60,000 in wages and tips.
Indeed, Native American casinos are profitable. Revenues generated by the Indian gaming industry totaled $27.9 billion in 2012, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Location is usually a key to the casino's success, said Kathryn Rand, a University of North Dakota School of Law professor and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy.
“If it's near a major metropolitan area, even with competition, it's likely to do well. If it's in a rural area with little traffic, like the tribal casinos in North Dakota, it's likely to earn modest profits at best,” she said.
Rand said she doesn't believe a proposed Catawba casino would hurt the Cherokee operation.
“I'm not sure the new casino would draw customers away from the Cherokee unless it was offering something significantly different from the Cherokee – different games, higher stakes, a resort complex, whatever. If the games and amenities are similar, customers will probably just go to whatever is more convenient,” she said.
To operate a casino in North Carolina, a tribe has to clear four hurdles, said Greg Richardson, executive director of the N.C. Commission on Indian Affairs.
First, it has to be federally recognized. “Then you have to have land in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Catawbas already have that – but it's in South Carolina,” he said.
A tribe also has to have a compact with the state to go into the casino gaming industry, a process that the Cherokees in North Carolina went through years ago, Richardson said.
“The fourth step is you have to have the consent of the General Assembly,” he said.
That's not going to happen, Stam predicted.
In the letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Stam said he and other lawmakers wanted to quash talk of a potential casino by the Catawbas.
It says lawmakers would have “serious opposition” if her agency attempted to make North Carolina lands eligible for gambling.
He said the Cherokee casino is different in part because the tribe is based in North Carolina.
“With the Cherokees, it's a destination – you got to want to go there to get there,” he said. “It's not on the way to anywhere. But put that on I-85 near the South Carolina line would essentially just open up half the state for continual gambling and all of the crime, debt, domestic violence and all of the negative effects of wide-open gambling.”