By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – It was in an era of newly-created departments of Equity and Inclusion visioning progressive programs to more inclusively create economic opportunity for the dispossessed that the Buncombe County Commissioners approved a resolution in opposition to the Catawba Indian Nation Casino in Kings Mountain.
Commissioner Anthony Penland cast the sole vote against the proposal. He said he understood the economic impact a casino could have, draining business from Harrah’s Cherokee Resort and Casino into the Piedmont. “It could hurt us, but it could help them.” He said for the last five months, he has been a staunch advocate for economic equality, so he cited statistics shared by Catawba Chief William Harris in 2015, among which was the claim that the tribe’s poverty rate was more than twice that of the rest of South Carolina. To support the resolution, he said, would be going against another recent resolution denouncing, “the unfair treatment [of one group] for the gain of another group.”
Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Richard Sneed was in the commission chambers, and consideration of the matter was expedited to allow him to get to another meeting. The Catawba Nation sent no representatives.
Sneed stated the EBCI had been running the Cherokee casino for the last 22 years and the annex in Murphy for another five. The tribe, he said had been fully compliant with all federal laws and regulations controlling Indian gaming. Chair Brownie Newman added the Cherokee had structured their casino business in a manner to create “significant public benefits.”
Sneed explained that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 opened the door for “unscrupulous developers” to “reservation shop” for lands for their casinos. As terms of their settlement agreement with South Carolina in 1993, however, the Catawba tribe agreed to surrender their eligibility for IGRA gaming privileges in exchange for $50 million. Instead, the Catawba were to negotiate permission to take any land into trust for a casino, and/or to operate any gaming facilities, with the State of South Carolina.
Sneed spared the commissioners’ choice words used by the tribe in litigation and other public statements about the developer’s character and, “history of criminal and civil enforcement actions against him and his companies for illegal gambling.” He merely said that after developer Wallace Cheves’ bid for a South Carolina casino failed, he decided to try using the tribal identity to build a casino across the state line.
“The fact that a South Carolina senator introduced a bill to the Senate to move a federally-recognized tribe from one state to another for the purpose of gaming, is completely unprecedented,” said Sneed. Last year, the Smoky Mountain News reported that Cheves had contributed a total of $50,000 to the bill’s sponsors, Lindsay Graham (SC), Thom Tillis (NC), and Richard Burr (NC). At the time, Cheves expressed hopes the casinos would be built and operating in time for tremendous economic impact during the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte. Cheves framed the donations not as pay-to-play, but as supporting candidates who support economic development. The bill, however, “failed and stalled in the Senate.”
Then, in March, the US Department of the Interior acted unilaterally to put 17 acres of North Carolina land into trust for a casino for the Catawba. Sneed said this action was in violation of the Catawba’s settlement agreement, which, as an act of Congress, was law. The State of North Carolina, further, was not consulted, adding state sovereignty considerations to the litigation.
Sneed said he had met with Cleveland County leaders a couple years ago. They told him they didn’t care who opened a casino and that they’d welcome the Cherokee as well. Sneed then told them they did not understand the process. If the EBCI wanted to take land into trust for gaming, they would have to submit an application to the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that would trigger the IGRA’s “two-part determination.” The tribe would have to spend about $10 – $20 million on preparing environmental, crime, and traffic impact analyses for their casino, a process that could take 10-15 years, and at the completion of which, the governor could simply reject the proposal.
“That whole process that we are subject to has just been bypassed with the stroke of a pen,” said Sneed. Appealing to Penland, he said he understood the social and economic justice angles. However, in defining “fair treatment, and what is just and what is unjust,” the Cherokee considered working within the constructs of existing law and solidly respecting political and economic partnerships with state and local governments to be the right thing to do. Elected officials were supposed to be bound by the rule of law.
Sneed believed it was for those reasons that the tribe had the backing of the entire legislative delegation from Western North Carolina, all county commissioners west of Buncombe, and the Council of Independent Business Owners. Buncombe County Commissioner Amanda Edwards said it was the op-ed by Senator Jim Davis and Representative Joe Sam Queen of the local delegation in the Asheville Citizen-Times that swayed her opinion. Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides said the fact that South Carolina rejected the casino told him all he needed to know.
Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher, who often cites his Christian beliefs as motivation for his votes said he wasn’t a fan of casinos, but he was a fan of jobs, so he was going to vote for the resolution, “for my friends over there.”