SC tribe seeking permission to open casino in Cleveland Co.

Mitch Weiss Associated Press

September 9, 2013

KINGS MOUNTAIN — The Catawba Indian Nation is filing an application with federal officials to buy North Carolina land for a planned gambling casino that the tribe says would create thousands of new jobs.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris said the South Carolina-based tribe hopes the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs will move swiftly to approve the application, which asks the agency to put 16 acres near King Mountain into trust for the tribe. It would be the first step in a long process to build a casino along Interstate 85, just across the border from South Carolina in North Carolina. The 2,800-member tribe already has land in trust in York County, S.C.

“The Catawba Nation has a deep and rich history in both North and South Carolina dating back well before the American Revolutionary War,” Harris said.

Agency spokeswoman Nedra Darling said Monday the application process is in the very early stages.

“It’s not a short process by any means. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a methodical process involving a lot of different things,” she said.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians already operates a bustling casino in the western part of North Carolina.

To operate a casino in North Carolina, a tribe has to clear four hurdles, said Greg Richardson, executive director of the N.C. Commission on Indian Affairs.

First, it has to be federally recognized — the Catawbas are — then the tribe has to have land in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Catawbas now have such land in South Carolina, but not in North Carolina.

A tribe also has to have a compact with the state to go into the casino gambling industry, a process that the Cherokees in North Carolina went through years ago. The fourth step is that the tribe has to have the consent of the General Assembly. But that’s going to be difficult for the Catawbas in North Carolina.

While officials in Cleveland County say they’d welcome the casino, the project faces stiff opposition from state lawmakers.

One concern is that the Catawbas — unlike the Cherokees — are based outside of North Carolina. North Carolina House Speaker Pro Temp Paul Stam, R-Wake, said he’s concerned that if the Catawbas were allowed to open a casino in North Carolina, that could pave the way for other tribes to do the same.

He is among the more than 100 state House members who recently signed a letter opposing any attempt by a federally recognized tribe from outside North Carolina to build a casino with land inside the state.

But Harris said the development would be a boon to the community.

Once thriving with textile plants, the county’s unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in July.

Cleveland County leaders met with an adviser to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory in July to talk about the tribe’s proposal to build a casino, about 25 miles south of Charlotte. The McCrory administration later played down the idea.

But the county Chamber of Commerce on Monday posted pictures of the proposed project, calling the casino and entertainment complex a world-class resort.

“Our Nation and the people of the Carolinas are entering into a partnership to bring 4,000 much needed new jobs and growth to a region hit hard by a tough economy,” Harris said.

The tribe has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get some form of gambling, but has failed at most every turn.

The tribe signed a 1993 agreement with the state and federal governments in which it agreed to drop a lawsuit claiming that broken treaties dating back to Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the early 19th century meant they should get hundreds of square miles of land. In exchange, the tribe was given its current reservation in South Carolina, and permission to open two bingo halls as well as to any additional gambling allowed by the state.

The tribe opened a bingo hall in Rock Hill, S.C., but competition from the state lottery eventually overtook it. The tribe was rejected by a handful of local governments when it tried to find a place for the second bingo parlor.

In recent years, the Catawbas have turned their attention to building a casino, saying that because South Carolina law allows gambling cruises in international waters, gambling should also by legal within the tribe’s sovereign borders. Their first choice was on land in York County near their reservation, but local officials and the state refused to back the tribe’s plans. The Catawbas sued, but a judge threw the suit out. The tribe is appealing that decision.

Catawba leaders have promised to share a sizable share of their gambling revenue with state and local governments. The tribe’s lawsuit suggests the casino could make up to $100 million for the South Carolina state government.