CHEROKEE, N.C. (WJHL)- Gaming legislation advancing in the Virginia General Assembly on Tuesday moved the state another step closer to legalizing casinos. Across state lines, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has been impacting the town of Cherokee, North Carolina for 23 years.
Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), said the town’s growth in healthcare and education wouldn’t have been possible without gaming revenue.
“We do what everybody in this country says they would like for government to do,” said Sneed.
The EBCI announced plans in January to build a casino at the Pinnacle in Washington County, Virginia. But under the legislation moving through the General Assembly, only five “economically distressed” cities would be allowed to have a casino – including Bristol. If the current bill becomes law, a competing proposed casino at the former Bristol Mall could be the only one allowed to move forward. Each locality would also need to hold a referendum on whether or not to allow a casino.
Regardless of which proposed project could ultimately materialize in Southwest Virginia, casino proponents say gaming revenue would make a significant economic impact in the area. In Cherokee, the EBCI take pride in the town and tribe’s transformation since the casino first began.
“For most tribal nations, there was abject poverty for generations, and oppression, and a loss of dignity and self respect,” said Sneed. “To go from that, to being a regional leader where we are having a significant impact. It’s a complete 180 from when I was a kid. Our people have nice homes, they have nice cars.”
In 2019, 4.5 million people visited Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Visitor money going into the casino spills back out into the town, nowhere better shown than through two buildings. The first is a hospital facility which opened in 2015. The second, a state-of-the-art school for pre-K through 12th grade students living within the Qualla Boundary.
The $124 million main school facility opened in 2009. Currently, 1,358 students are enrolled. New buildings are planned as the student population increases. The current Kindergarten class consists of 147 students, the largest ever for Cherokee Central School.
A universal food program is in place for all students, funded with tribal money.
“To allow for those students to have free breakfast and free lunch, no matter where they are on the free and reduced schedule,” said Yona Wade, director of the school’s community affairs.
Wade said gaming revenue also allows the school to stay at the forefront of technology, both in classroom tech and security systems.
“We also have a gunshot detection system, which has been installed in our school. It’s the most expensive piece of technology that I hope we never have to use,” he said.
With gaming revenue, Wade said, the school isn’t limited to normal federal funding budgets.
“Without gaming, none of this would be possible,” he said.
What’s possible is a 473,000 square foot school with a different gym for elementary, middle, and high school students. Each high school grade has its own science lab. There’s an auto-mechanics class facility and greenhouse by the football field.
Wade said the school system values art classes at the same level as STEM courses. The school has a dance studio, contemporary gallery, and theatre-in-the-round. This is in addition to the 1,100 seat main auditorium. Inside, students can be found rehearsing for an upcoming musical with a guest director with Broadway credentials.
“The school’s paid for,” said Sneed. “Phase One of the hospital is paid for. Phase Two is under construction.”
Across town, workers at the Cherokee Indian Hospital say the facility was designed to make patients feel like they’re outdoors.
Medical services available inside include radiology, physical therapy, dental, an eye clinic, respiratory therapy, and more. There’s also a complimentary medicine center offering massages and acupuncture.
Phase Two is the new location for the town’s Analenisgi Recovery Center, which is expected to be finished by early fall 2020. The Center treats those with addiction, mental health issues, and more.
“When Phase Two opens up, we’ll have under one roof, the secured facility to deal with the medical side of addiction. But included in that, all our mental health facilities and caregivers will all be under one roof,” said Sneed.
Sneed said gaming revenue afforded the community resources to deal with pervasive issues.
“I tell people all the time, they ask, ‘Is there a drug problem in Cherokee?’ There’s a drug problem nationwide,” he said. “Where there’s poverty, hopelessness, then there’s crime and there’s drug use, and all the negatives. We’ve seen the exact opposite. [Gaming revenue] has been a real positive for us.”