By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
ASHEVILLE — Las Vegas style card games may be headed to Harrah’s Casino if the Eastern Band of Cherokees can work a deal with Gov. Bev Perdue. In fact, the tribe is so confident that casino managers have a room reserved for poker in the facility’s $600 million expansion set to open in stages beginning in April.
“We urge North Carolinians to keep an eye on this matter which came to the forefront late last summer when the governor announced that she was open to talks about gaming expansion,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “We continue to urge her to consider the harmful effects of gambling before entertaining any ideas about table games.”
According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, the tribe’s Principal Chief Mitchell Hicks is waiting to make sure the video poker industry doesn’t appeal the recent Court of Appeals ruling upholding the state’s video poker ban before “turning up the heat at the governor’s office.”
According to a compact signed by then-Gov. Jim Hunt in 1994, the Cherokee casino can already offer video gambling machines and digital blackjack with a live dealer, but not table games such as poker, craps or roulette. In 2000, the agreement was extended from seven to 30 years and amended to raise prize limits, to allow cash advances and to eliminate restrictions on gambling space. Electronic raffles and bingo games were added in 2002, but talks with Gov. Mike Easley over the next couple of years apparently fell apart.
Harrah’s 11-year-old Cherokee Casino boasts annual net profits of around $155 million from 3.5 million visitors. The resort has a 597-room hotel and added 20,000 square feet to its gaming area a few years ago. Its new expansion will include a 20-story hotel tower with 532 rooms, a 3,000-seat event center, five restaurants and a half dozen stores. Casino floor space and the number of gambling machines will double.
The push for table games is the latest of the tribe’s efforts to shore up its finances. Half of casino profits go to run the tribe’s government; the other half is distributed to tribal members, whose payments went down 12 percent — from $4,473 to $3,892 — last year.
“The economic promises — although more dollars may flow in to begin with— never pan out in the long run,” said the Rev. Creech. “The societal costs are just too great.”
Eric Epstein, a consultant for East Hanover Township in Pennsylvania, where table games were approved earlier this month, warned lawmakers there that they were choosing “a short-term (budget) solution that will have long-term impacts.”
“Table games are not a simple revenue enhancement proposition, and the headaches associated with their arrival cannot be alleviated with two free drinks,” he warned in an op-ed piece published in the Patriot News. “Table games bring a younger, louder crowd that adds an additional layer of stress on infrastructure.”
“Many of the communities hosting casinos are just catching up to meet the technical, infrastructure and social challenges created by slots facilities,” he said of the situation in Pennsylvania. “Few, if any, municipalities have had the opportunity to conduct post-operational impact students or transportation assessments on slots, let alone what might happen under table games.”
Though no local studies have been released about the impact of gambling at Cherokee, former Haywood County Sheriff R. Tom Alexander reported in 2001 a 25 percent increase in crime and increased traffic flow after Harrah’s opened with “non-stop gas drive-offs, drunk drivers, speeders and people who just can’t get back home from the casino.”
“Casinos, Crime and Community Costs,” a national study, shows that the presence of casinos leads to increased rates of burglary, larceny, auto theft, robbery and more. Already about 1 in 20 adults has a gambling problem with rates of domestic violence, divorce, bankruptcy and suicide all higher among gambling addicts.