The Catawba Nation has filed an application with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in a first step toward gaining permission to build a casino and resort in Cleveland County.
If approved, the South Carolina tribe said Monday that it plans to build a casino, hotel, restaurants and retail shops on a 16-acre site. The tribe said it has been working with Cleveland County officials, who are eager for new jobs in an area still struggling to recover from the recession and the downsizing of the textile industry.
The Catawbas commissioned an economic study that said the project could bring more than 4,000 permanent jobs to the county, additional construction work and a $339 million capital investment. The tribe disclosed its plans Monday after weeks of speculation and denials, but it is facing stiff resistance.
N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s office said the governor “remains unconvinced that any new casino proposal is in the best interest of North Carolina.”
The Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported in August that McCrory’s senior economic adviser visited the site earlier this year. But the governor declined to endorse the Catawbas’ application to federal authorities, a spokesman said in a statement.
To operate Las Vegas-style gaming, the tribe would need to sign a gambling compact with North Carolina. The state’s support for the project also weighs in the federal approval process when it comes to acquiring land for gaming.
Cleveland County officials have embraced the project as a major source of new jobs for a county with a 10.4 percent unemployment rate in July.
“The county has lagged the state in its recovery efforts,” Michael Chrisawn, president of the Cleveland County Chamber, told the Observer on Monday. “We see this as a very significant candidate for relieving some of those lost jobs.”
But high-ranking Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly oppose the venture. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, and more than 100 House lawmakers signed a letter last week to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in an effort to block the South Carolina tribe’s efforts to acquire lands to establish a gaming operation.
The federal agency must take the lands into a trust before gaming can occur on the land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it had received the application and will begin its review process.
In a statement, Catawba Chief Bill Harris said he hoped the Bureau of Indian Affairs would act quickly on the application but said the timeline for action is unclear. He stressed the economic benefits of the project, noting the success the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has had with its casino in western North Carolina.
“The people of North Carolina have witnessed firsthand the benefits of a close working partnership with the proud people of the Cherokee Nation,” he said.
The Catawba Nation is a federally recognized tribe located near Rock Hill, S.C., with roughly 2,800 members. Its service area includes six North Carolina counties – Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Rutherford and Union – but it is not a state-recognized Native American tribe in North Carolina.
The tribe has previously sought to build a gaming operation on its 700-acre reservation about 30 miles south of Charlotte, but that effort has been tied up in court. The tribe is also awaiting approval of a bingo hall near Interstate 77 in Rock Hill.
The Cleveland County casino would be located off Dixon School Road in Kings Mountain near Interstate 85 on a parcel owned by a company called Roadside Truck Plaza, said David Dear, interim county manager in Cleveland County. The Observer and News & Observer reported in August that the parcel was a possible location.
The resort would occupy a portion of the parcel, and the rest would be available for further development, Dear said.
Trenton Testa, president of Roadside Truck Plaza, declined to comment.
Kings Mountain is about 30 miles west of Charlotte near the Cleveland-Gaston county line.
No incentives needed
To operate a top-level gaming facility, federal law requires that the gaming take place on the reservation or tribal lands held in trust by the United States under an agreement with the state, which typically includes a revenue-sharing arrangement with the state. The state determines what type of gaming is allowed and the National Indian Gaming Commission also must sign off.
If the tribe doesn’t reach an agreement with the state, it could still operate a high-stakes bingo operation at the Cleveland County site, much like it previously did in South Carolina.
The Cherokee casino, which is run by the Harrah’s gaming company, had a $300 million economic impact in Jackson and Swain counties in 2009, according to a 2011 study by professors at UNC Chapel Hill. Capital investments contributed another $82 million.
Mitchell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, said late Monday that the tribe was concerned about the potential impact of the proposed Catawba project.
“We are greatly concerned that this development will negatively impact job growth and revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and for the western region of North Carolina,” Hicks said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the project and make a full determination as to the full impact it will have on Cherokee.”
Cleveland County officials said they don’t see the project as competition for the Cherokee nation. “Their site is 150 miles from Cleveland County,” Dear said.
The Catawbas’ project would include a 220,000-square-foot gaming facility and 1,500 guest rooms, according to a briefing posted on the Cleveland County Chamber’s web site and Cleveland County officials. The Chamber also posted a rendering of what it called a “World Class Resort” designed by the Friedmutter Group, which focuses on the gaming and hospitality industry.
The casino would create 3,000 direct jobs at the facility and an additional 1,330 jobs “supported in the Cleveland County area,” according to a study conducted for the Catawba Nation by Miley & Associates, a Columbia, S.C., consulting firm.
Dear said he didn’t have any information on the developers for the project or on who would run the casino, and the Catawbas didn’t disclose information on their partners. County officials started talking with the Catawbas and their attorneys in January, he said.
The project would not require any investment or tax incentives from the county, he said.
“It’s very unusual for a project of this magnitude to come into the county and not ask for anything,” Dear said. “They’ll be paying everything entirely on their own. We are very anxious here in Cleveland County to see this come to fruition.”
Kings Mountain Mayor Rick Murphrey said that in recent years the city has lost thousands of textile jobs but recovered some as the city diversified its industrial base, landed new companies and upgraded utilities. But some of these new companies downsized or closed after the recession, so the city is still seeking job growth.
Commenting on the casino, he said, “We’re excited about this opportunity for jobs and providing utilities. I have friends and neighbors who have been looking for jobs for three years.” Observer staff writer Joe DePriest contributed.
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