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Major wager in Cherokee

The Harrah's casino that began here as a glorified slots shack is today a full-service, year-round attraction where change is ongoing, especially these days. A five-year, $633 million expansion is nearing completion, with new projects opening every several months.

Haven't been there in six months? Despite the familiar sounds - the ping and whir of electronic gaming machines, the bustle of construction - it's a different and bigger game.

The casino, which opened in 1997 as a one-story affair on the banks of Soco Creek, is today the major player in area tourism - an ever-expanding enterprise with three high-rise hotel towers and about 41/2 acres of gaming rooms. While other destinations across the Southeast froze or withered during the recession, the casino complex continued to expand and renovate; its current push is slated to wrap up next year.

Luck has little to do with it. Harrah's, the gambling chain that runs the operation for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, always plays by the numbers.

The reservation was historically a second- or third-tier destination - beautiful scenery, an impoverished but proud population.

But Cherokee was well situated when reservation gambling caught fire in the country 20 years ago: two hours from Knoxville, Tenn., 21/2 from metro Atlanta, and about three hours from Charlotte, Columbia and Chattanooga, Tenn. The drive-to allure is amplified by being just up the road from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The deal brokered with the state of North Carolina called for electronic gambling only. What seemed a liability 14 years ago actually held advantages: Society is no longer wary of glorified computer screens. Fewer staffers are required to maintain play. And play can be much faster.

As is, the complex has a staff of about 1,700; the total rises in summer.

The slot machines are probably the most lucrative part of the casino's business. Bar-code technology now allows you to move from one machine to another. And by the end of next year, 4,700 slot and video poker games will be in operation.

Video versions of poker and blackjack allow a speed that pasteboards don't. With no cards to shuffle, deal or collect, you can play up to 40 or 50 hands of poker in an hour, instead of 25 to 30.

Three months after the initial opening, Harrah's realized more space would be needed. There were several casino expansions. Hotel towers were added in 2002 and 2005; the 21-story Creek Tower debuted this winter. The new tower doubles on-site room count to 1,108.

The recession hurt Vegas, a fly-in attraction, far more than it affected Cherokee.

Long-range goal

As an adults-only business - and alcoholic beverages became legal at the casino Dec. 29 - floor traffic is heaviest evenings and weekends. It's a boggling underground complex - it's easy to get lost in the endless rows of gambling machines.

The current project included expanding and face-lifting the casino's three gaming zones with ambient color-coding and background music; one is nonsmoking; another touts a more high-energy feel with an entertainment and sports-TV lounge. When construction ends, casino floor occupancy will be about 15,000. A fourth gaming room, scheduled for completion in July, will offer Asian video gaming machines.

One indicator of where Harrah's and the Cherokee are headed is an on-complex golf shop, where hotel guests and day visitors can book rounds on the nearby, tribe-owned Sequoyah National Golf Club, 18 holes designed by famed links architect Robert Trent Jones II.

Harrah's Cherokee is actively expanding toward resort status, says Darold Londo, general manager at the complex since 2006, and previously an operations vice president at the Harrah's at Atlantic City, N.J.

He sees what's happening here as following the Atlantic City arc, and terms it a strong business model.

Expect a name-change that will include the word "resort." While construction continues, he's also working to upgrade the staff to reflect the desired status - "to elevate the 'star' approach... to go from good (service) to great."

It's unlikely the resort will be geared toward family vacationers. Traditional local attractions - the warm-weather "Unto These Hills" outdoor drama, Oconoluftee Indian Village, the year-round and dramatically upgraded Museum of the Cherokee Indian - can occupy youngsters only so long.

Ultimately in Cherokee, Harrah's casino is the draw.

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