I

t’s maddening that Western North Carolina is being targeted for a self-inflicted economic wound.

It’s even more maddening that both of North Carolina’s U.S. Senators are pushing for it.

At issue is the attempt by the Catawba Nation to land a casino.

A bit about the Catawba, whose ancestral homelands were on both sides of the North Carolina-South Carolina border: In 1941 the tribe gained federal recognition; the Catawba terminated their tribal status in 1959 and received individual landholdings in 1962, when their tribal membership was a bit over 600 souls. The tribe reconsidered the termination, was recognized by the state of South Carolina in 1973 and regained federal recognition in 1993 in exchange for dropping claims to land around the York County, S.C. area. The tribe received $50 million. The agreement included a “service area” in six North Carolina counties where Catawbas live that made them eligible for the same federal benefits as Catawba on the South Carolina reservation.

That’s the eye of the needle lawmakers are trying to drive the casino gambling camel through.

North Carolina’s compact with the Cherokee allows such gaming. South Carolina has no such agreement.

To get around that, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced legislation authorizing the Department of the Interior to receive 16 acres of North Carolina land near Kings Mountain for a casino complex, an idea first proposed in 2013.

North Carolina’s GOP senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, are co-sponsors.

Back in 2013 the plan was opposed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, current Gov. Roy Cooper (then serving as N.C. Attorney General), GOP N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger and 100 state House members, including Tillis.

Casino proponents tout economic growth for Cleveland and surrounding counties. 

To us it’s a clear case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Casino gaming is big business, and the Harrah’s operation in Cherokee has provided jobs, a healthy shot of state and local tax revenue and opportunities for the EBCI to conduct a number of important community projects ranging from efforts to save the Cherokee language to combating the opioid scourge. Harrah’s has been a good corporate citizen to Jackson County and WNC, backing community initiatives such as the Blue Plate Special at the Community Table. Each adult EBCI member receives as much as $14,000 annually from casino revenue.

Local governments, including Jackson commissioners and the towns of Dillsboro and Webster, have lined up in support of the Cherokee and against a Catawba-operated casino. Action is expected shortly from Sylva and Forest Hills.

It’s easy to see why. Casino gaming is popular, but there’s a finite number of gamers. Plopping a casino down near I-85 would pull patrons from Charlotte and other metropolitan areas who currently visit Cherokee.

Pull that business away and it’s not hard to extrapolate a significant hit to revenue and jobs here. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is one of the largest employees for Jackson and Swain counties. More than 1,000 Jackson residents alone work at Harrah’s.

A shrinking revenue stream would mean a shrinking number of jobs. In a cascade effect, one can foresee those missing jobs impacting others through fewer meals eaten out, fewer services, fewer haircuts, you name it.

Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price said, “Obviously, any potential downturn in gaming volume, to the point of staff reductions, could have a negative domino effect on our local economy.”

“It’s an economic engine for us,” commissioners’ Chairman Brian McMahan said. “That much is very clear.”

We would strongly hope our own elected officials don’t throw sand in that engine.

In an official statement regarding the legislation, the EBCI said “While the (Eastern Cherokee) tribe respects and encourages progress for other Native American communities, including South Carolina’s Catawba Indian Nation, the recent filing of a bill in the U.S. Senate to give North Carolina land to the South Carolina tribe for an off-reservation casino is nothing more than a modern-day land grab by the federal government of Cherokee aboriginal lands.”

We agree with that statement.

We are all for economic opportunities for the Catawba.

But not at the expense of the Eastern Band, Western North Carolina and Jackson County.