Casino gambling is about to move closer to Chattanooga.
Harrah's Cherokee Valley River Casino will open on Sept. 28 near Murphy, N.C., about an hour and 50-minute drive from Chattanooga.
It's a leaner version of North Carolina's only other casino, Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort, which is about a 3-hour drive from Chattanooga in Cherokee, N.C.
The new, $110 million Murphy casino will have 50,000 square feet of gaming space with 1,050 slot machines and 70 traditional table games, a five-outlet food court and a 300-room, full-service hotel, casino officials say.
Both of the North Carolina casinos are owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and operated by Caesars Entertainment.
The new casino's hotel is about a quarter the size of the 1,108-room resort in Cherokee, and the Murphy casino won't have the amenities that have led some to call the Cherokee casino a "mini Las Vegas," such as a spa, conference center or events center that features such entertainers as Jay Leno, the Doobie Brothers and Tony Bennett.
"It's very small, relative to Cherokee," said Lumpy Lambert, a tribal member who will be the new casino's general manager. "Cherokee is a full-blown resort, where the Valley River [Casino] will be a day-trip destination."
The tribe expects the new casino will siphon off some customers from Cherokee.
"We recognize that will cannibalize some of the business," Lambert said.
But the plan is get day-trippers from Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta. Casino officials expect that people from those areas still will drive to Cherokee for longer stays at the resort, which is a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To get to the new casino, Chattanoogans will have to navigate some two-lane sections of Highway 64, and Atlanta drivers will have two lanes for a section of Highway 60.
Table games will include blackjack, 21 plus three, three-card poker, Mississippi stud, baccarat and mini-baccarat, Lambert said.
The new casino's food court will have a Starbucks coffeehouse, Nathan's Famous hot dogs, Panda Express Chinese Restaurant, Papa John's Pizza and Earl of Sandwich.
The new hotel in Murphy won't have a restaurant or suites, Lambert said, but it does have 28 deluxe corner rooms that are larger than the standard room.
The casino, hotel and parking takes up 45 acres of 95 acres that the tribe owns in Murphy.
"It's a very beautiful site," Lambert said. "You have some really beautiful views."
'Excited about payroll'
The new casino will provide about 900 jobs, Lambert said. Murphy, a city with a population in the 2010 census of 1,627 residents, is the county seat of Cherokee County, N.C., which has about 27,000 residents.
"What I'm very excited about is the $32 million to $39 million payroll every year," said Phylis Blackmon, executive director of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. "That payroll is going to help every business that we have."
Blackmon said the tribe expects between 1 million and 1.5 million visitors annually at the Murphy casino.
Bill Hughes, who's been Murphy's mayor since 1997 and has served on the City Council since 1987, expects the new casino "is going to create a tremendous amount of traffic, but we hope that can be handled."
The casino is a mile outside of city limits. The mayor thinks Murphy can attract tourists to its downtown, which has restored historic buildings including a Louisville & Nashville Railroad depot and a four-mile-long riverwalk alongside the Hiwassee and Valley rivers, which meet in Murphy.
"As a rule, gamblers go straight to the casino," Hughes said. "We're going to try to lure them [downtown]."
He said the casino will create steady jobs with benefits — mostly for support workers such as housekeepers, landscapers, plumbers and electricians — that will complement jobs provided by the city's other big employers: Snap-on Tools, Moog Components Group and MGM Brakes.
"If [the casino hires] the full 900 people, that will definitely make them the largest employer in the county, no question," the mayor said.
The tribe's Cherokee casino has been boon there, according to a June 2011 study commissioned by tribe. The Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study estimated the Cherokee casino had a $300 million economic impact on Jackson and Swain counties, and that it was responsible for 5 percent of the jobs in the two counties and 8 percent of wages and salaries.
'Positive social impact'
The report also found that the casino had positive social impacts for the tribe; it lifted tribal members out of poverty, improved life expectancy and led to more students enrolling in community college.
The tribe's roughly 15,000 registered members, mainly descendants of Cherokee who avoided being forced on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, each get a share of casino profits that are distributed through two annual checks, which totaled $7,700 in 2012, according to a report in The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C
In March of last year, the tribe broke ground on a new, three-story, 141,000-square-foot hospital to replace an old, one-story hospital about half that size.
The casino in Cherokee draws almost 4 million people annually, and in 2013, the most recent year figures are available, the tribe reported gaming revenue totaled $513 million.
Tribal officials declined to say how much annual gaming revenue it expects from the Murphy casino.
The tribe could build another North Carolina casino, if it choose to. "There is a third license that would be available, should the tribe pursue it," Lambert said.
Not everyone is happy about the new casino in Murphy.
"Casino gambling is by definition predatory," said Rob Schofield, director of research and policy development for NC Policy Watch, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, N.C.
"It's just an unfortunate expansion of what's a growing problem across the country," Schofield said. "It's one of the very few issues where progressive activists like me get pretty much in line with [anti-gambling] religious conservatives."
"We've had casino gambling in Cherokee for decades, now, and it remains one of the poorest [regions] in North Carolina," he said. "It's the kind of economic development that brings not very good jobs."
The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) just completed Casino Parkway, the road leading to the casino. The road work, which included a building a bridge over the Valley River and installing turn lanes off Highway 74, will cost the state about $10.2 million, after the tribe reimburses NCDOT about $800,000 for installation of water and sewer lines.
The state agency justified the expense based on the casino's economic impact.
"This was an important project from an economic development standpoint," said NCDOT Division Construction Engineer Brian Burch.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.face book.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.