As workers in hard hats hauled in and fired up colorful, neon-bordered slot machines, officials with the Catawba Indian Nation’s North Carolina casino project gave a first look inside their soon-to-open gaming facility this week.
“This is the beginning, just the beginning,” Chuck Kilroy of casino project consultant Delaware North told The Charlotte Observer during a media tour of the tribe’s “pre-launch” gaming facility Thursday morning.
The single-story facility, off Interstate 85, about 35 miles west of Charlotte, is scheduled to open in early July, Kilroy said. July 1 is the target, but that’s still uncertain, he said.
Open 24/7, the facility will feature 500 slot machines by seven manufacturers, a snack bar and a service bar.
Work on a larger “temporary” casino building is scheduled to begin by year’s end and take about a year to finish on already cleared land near the “pre-launch” facility, according to Kilroy.
That building will include about 1,300 slot machines, along with table games, a restaurant and a bar, according to Kilroy.
The building will be the first part of the planned $273 million Two Kings Casino Resort, for which no construction timetable is set, Delaware North officials said.
’Buffalo,’ ‘Wheel of Fortune’ machines await visitors
At the “pre-launch” facility that’s opening in July, the “Buffalo” and “Wheel of Fortune” machines will be the most popular of the offerings, based on their use at other casinos across the country, Kilroy said.
Workers have installed 254 machines and expect the number to climb to 374 by week’s end, he said.
Only adults age 21 and older will be allowed to enter the 29,000-square-foot facility, officials said.
The parking lot has 649 spaces, and an outside area will accommodate food trucks and dining, according to Delaware North officials. Smoking will be permitted only in outside, designated areas, they said.
‘Gain’ for area, casino officials say
Kilroy said it’s common for casino projects to start with such a smaller facility as the one opening in early July, because the larger casino can take years to build after government approval.
The pre-launch facility consists of 29 modular trailers, according to Delaware North, which is based in Buffalo, N.Y. The gaming area is about 14,700 square feet and an administration area about 4,200 square feet, officials said.
“We’re excited,” Kilroy said of the facility. “It’s taken a long time to get to this point.”
The casino will give the area an economic boost, he said, from the full-time jobs it provides to the increased trade from casino guests at local restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
“This is a gain for Cleveland County, for the citizens, and for the community at large,” Kilroy said.
The 250 full-time workers needed to operate the pre-launch facility have been hired, except for a few cocktail servers, officials said. The employees include about 50 Catawbas, according to Delaware North.
Lines at recent job fairs were long, and hiring officials watched everyone’s demeanor during the long hours, because they wanted only smiling faces, i.e., constantly cheery employees, greeting and tending to casino visitors when the place opens, he said.
Wages are “competitive” with similar facilities, Kilroy said, although he said he doesn’t yet know the average wage at the Catawbas’ new facility.
Governor signed compact
In January, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the Catawba Indian Nation signed a revenue-sharing agreement that allows Vegas-style gaming to be offered at Two Kings Casino Resort.
The Catawbas’ reservation is in Rock Hill.
After years of on-again, off-again efforts, the Catawba Nation held a ground-breaking for the casino last July.
With gambling prohibited in South Carolina, the Catawbas looked across the border for at least seven years.
The tribe won federal approval to buy 16 acres for the project. The U.S. Interior department put the land in trust, a designation that gave the tribe the right to develop a casino.
Cooper’s agreement lets the tribe bring Vegas-style gambling to the Charlotte area, including slot machines, blackjack and roulette at the casino.
Cherokees lawsuit update
In May, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians appealed a judge’s ruling that let the Catawbas build the casino.
The Cherokee Nation also named the U.S. Department of Interior as a defendant in their notice of appeal filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. The Catawbas held a casino ground-breaking last July despite a lawsuit filed in federal court against the project.
The Cherokees sued the Catawbas, claiming that political pressure from the project’s developer prompted the government to pave the way for the casino and bypass Congress in the process.
The Cherokees have operated casinos in North Carolina since 1997 — the only other casinos permitted by the state, both in the N.C. mountains.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino operates west of Asheville, near Maggie Valley, about three hours west of Charlotte. Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino is a four-hour drive from Charlotte near Georgia and Tennessee.