Catawba Tribe Moves Forward on $300 Million North Carolina Casino Project

If all goes according to plan, a new $300 million casino will open its doors in North Carolina next summer.

The Catawba Nation broke ground on the property last month, located in the southern part of the state near Kings Mountain. If the doors open as planned in 2021, gamers won’t see the finished product. Instead, the tribe plans to set up a “temporary” casino of sorts. Then over the next 18 months, the remaining pieces will be assembled, including other parts of the casino, retail shops, and multiple restaurants. When construction is finished, the casino will cover 220,000 square feet with 3,000 slot machines and multiple table games, along with two hotels offering 750 rooms. 

The U.S. Dept. of the Interior can put land into trust for a tribe under the condition it’s an area they originally called home before being relocated in the 1800s. That’s what happened this past March when the department announced they had approved the Catawba casino request. Land was put into trust and then turned over to the tribe. 

The casino doesn’t have much in the way of competition. The closest gaming operation belongs to the Cherokee Nation in northwest North Carolina. That’s nearly three hours away from Kings Mountain. On the other side, there’s only one casino in South Carolina and it’s nowhere close. The Big M is in Little River, nearly four hours away from the Catawba Nation’s site. So basically, if someone in central or southern North Carolina wants to play, the Catawba casino will be their closest option. Local officials echoed that in a statement sent out to media. 

“With this project, we will become the premier destination between Atlanta and Washington D.C. for entertainment,” said Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler. 

A Look At The Catawba Numbers

As we mentioned, the first look gamblers will have at the casino will be a temporary version. What that means is the core casino will be up and running by July 2021, with 1,300 slot machines. There will also be food and drink options, but the main restaurants won’t be open yet. Casino officials also say there will be some “entertainment options,” but it’s unclear what exactly that will be. The temporary version is being used as a stopgap. Right now, it’s unclear what COVID-19 restrictions, if any, will be in place by 2021, but Catawba officials at the groundbreaking said the economy will determine how quickly this gets built. As of Aug. 6, Cleveland County reported a total of 1,097 virus cases, with 17 hospitalizations and 18 deaths. The good news is that 905 of those people recovered and were released from isolation. 

The concern for local officials is one echoed through most of North Carolina, as the majority of those cases came after July 1. As restrictions lifted, the number of cases climbed. Another concern is the governor’s recent declaration that he may not fully lift restrictions until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. During the groundbreaking, Catawba Nation officials mentioned the construction timeline would depend on “dollars and decisions.” If restrictions remain past this month, it could stall the tribe’s funding for the full project. 

Cherokee Tribe Files To Block Construction

Beyond COVID-19, the planned casino also faces a challenge from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee filed a lawsuit in March against the U.S. Department of the Interior, amending it in July. Both times, the Cherokee argued the King’s Mountain land is actually historically theirs. In all honesty, it’s a bit of a gray area. Before 1850, the Cherokee stretched from Virginia to South Carolina. At the same time, so did the Catawba. They were considered one of the most powerful tribes in the early 1800s. At that point, the tribe stretched from South Carolina to Virginia and West Virginia. A March 2020 report by the Department of the Interior acknowledged that both tribes had been in the area, but said that shouldn’t restrict the Catawba tribe from building a casino there. 

“Though the site falls within an area where another tribe may assert aboriginal ties, that fact does not detract the (Catawba) Nation’s ties to the land,” the Interior report stated.

A federal judge rejected the Cherokee’s request for an injunction in March, saying they didn’t show where the casino would cause them harm. In July, the group amended their lawsuit, now arguing the Catawbas should have worked with them to protect Cherokee “cultural resources” at the site. The lawsuit does not state what that would mean. 

Now the case goes to a hearing, to be scheduled for later this year. Unless the judge reverses the Interior Department’s decision, construction will start and the casino will open on schedule next summer. It’s worth mentioning that in more than 200 years, no judge has reversed a decision gifting land to a tribe. 

About the Author

Brian Carlton

Brian Carlton is an award-winning journalist who has covered casinos, the gaming and finance industries for more than a decade. His work has been published by the BBC and a variety of newspapers across the U.S.