The end of October saw Cherokee’s Tribal Council almost unanimously approve the request of Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise to borrow up to $80 million more than the amount of $250 million that was initially planned. The money is set to be used to finish the company’s expansion project at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
The decision was made with 11 votes in favor and 1 vote against the request and took about an hour of closed session discussion.
While the decision of the council was in favor of the gambling company’s request, some members shared their concern with the way the project for the expansion had been handled so far. Some of them, such as the representative of Wolfetown Chelsea Saunooke, said they were aware of the fact that the approval had to be given in order for the project to be finalized but they were not willing to see the business done this way in the future. Ms. Saunooke further shared that she plans to introduce legislation that will address capital contract guidelines.
Bo Crowe, a Wolfetown Representative, was the only Council member who voted against the resolution. Furthermore, he responded to the vote with a walk-in resolution aimed at removing Jim Owle from his position as a Chairman of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise.
As claimed by Mr. Crowe’s resolution, TCGE has not been in line with tribal hiring preference laws. It also outlines the prolonged exchange between the TCGE Board and the members of the Tribal Council.
The Expansion Project Was Initially Estimated at between $150 and $200 Million
According to Brian Saunooke, the spokesman of the casino company, the planned expansion of the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort includes the construction of a fourth hotel tower featuring 725 rooms, a convention center with sellable space of 83,000 square feet and a 2,000-space parking deck. As the Tribal Council learned when complete the convention center will total 140,000 square feet.
The casino expansion project was first given the green light in January 2017. At the time, it included plans for a new hotel tower featuring 800 rooms, a 100,000-square-foot convention center and a parking deck. According to the initial financial estimates provided by the TCGE members to the Council, the cost of the expansion project was in the range from $150 to $200 million. At the time, the Tribal Council was also told that a $250-million loan would cover any contingency spending associated with the project.
The costs have increased since 2017, with board members warning they could rise even further. At the time, it became clear that some additional funding was necessary in order for the project to be completed.
The expansion started in June 2018 and is expected to be brought to an end in the fall of 2021. It is expected to bring Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort about $17 million on an annual basis, plus convention profits.
However, the TCGE Board Member John Houser approached the Council on October 26th, saying there were no actual plans that supported the $250-million figure and an independent auditor’s review showed that the project did not get enough funding in the first place.