Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is considering a potential deal to allow a South Carolina-based Indian tribe to open a casino just across the border in North Carolina in a move that is generating swift and fierce opposition from top Republican lawmakers.
McCrory’s senior economic adviser Tony Almeida met with Cleveland County officials about a month ago to discuss a potential casino operated by the Catawba Indian Nation, said Ronnie Hawkins, chairman of the Cleveland County Commission.
The meeting, which took place at a possible site for the venue along Interstate 85 south of Kings Mountain, included discussion of a casino, hotel and other retail operations, Hawkins said. The commissioners wrote a letter to the governor supporting the project. Under existing state law, a casino could offer slot machines and live table games, such as poker and blackjack.
A McCrory spokesman declined to comment earlier this week because it is an ongoing economic development project that requires confidentiality. A spokeswoman for the Catawba Nation denied the tribe is seeking a gambling operation in North Carolina at this time.
If pursued, such a project would require a gambling compact, and negotiations would most likely involve state lawmakers. That is what happened when former Gov. Bev Perdue renewed an agreement in 2012 to allow the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to offer new games at its casino in western North Carolina.
A new effort to expand gambling operations in the state could net North Carolina millions of dollars under a revenue-sharing agreement. But it would carry significant political risk for McCrory, pitting the Republican governor against members of his own party.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, sounded indignant after a Cleveland County economic development official recently told him about the negotiations for a casino. Apodaca said Senate leader Phil Berger and the majority Republican caucus would oppose such an effort.
“We don’t need an out-of-state tribe coming into North Carolina and opening a casino,” the Hendersonville lawmaker said Thursday. “I can tell you I haven’t heard of one person yet who was excited about the idea.”
House Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam, an Apex Republican, echoed the sentiment. As a strong gambling opponent, Stam is worried the casino’s prominent location off a major interstate would generate “10 times as much gambling” as the destination resort operated by the Cherokees in a remote region of the state.
“I am very much opposed to it and will do everything I can to defeat it,” he said.
N.C. recognition sought
The governor has the authority to enter into a compact without legislative approval, and key lawmakers said McCrory’s office has not consulted with the Senate. But Apodaca indicated that state lawmakers could revoke the governor’s power.
“If we have to come back for a veto session,” Apodaca said, noting a possible effort to override the governor’s veto of two bills, “we might have to get (ourselves) some power.”
The Catawba Nation is a federally recognized tribe located near Rock Hill, S.C., with roughly 2,800 members. Its service area includes six North Carolina counties – Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Rutherford and Union – but it is not a recognized Native American tribe in North Carolina.
Greg Richardson, the executive director of the N.C. Commission on Indian Affairs, said the Catawbas applied for recognition in 2012 and sought to push the effort through special legislation, but the effort failed. The application is waiting for the commission’s review.
The Catawbas do not own land in North Carolina, spokeswoman Elizabeth Harris said. Whether they can acquire land in the state and operate a gaming facility remains uncertain.
To operate a top-level gaming facility, federal law requires that it take place on the reservation or tribal lands held in trust by the United States under an agreement with the state, which typically includes a revenue-sharing arrangement. The state determines what type of gaming is allowed and the National Indian Gaming Commission also must sign off.
The potential location for the gambling operation is off Dixon School Road near the interstate, Cleveland County officials said. A 45-acre parcel owned by Roadside Truck Plaza is listed as available on the Kings Mountain planning department’s website. Trenton Testa, president of Roadside Truck Plaza, said he hasn’t talked to the Catawbas but said he was contacted by a real estate broker a few months ago who said he represented “some people out of South Carolina.”
“They asked if I was interested in selling my land,” he said. “They said they represented a special interest group.”
Testa said he doesn’t know whether the group was the Catawbas and said he hasn’t talked to the broker in several months. He said he is interested in selling the land, which has been in his family for years, but he hasn’t been able to find a buyer.
His father, Jim Testa, ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate as a Republican in 2004 and is a former owner of the truck stop. The elder Testa earlier operated video poker machines and played a small role in imprisoned former House Speaker Jim Black’s legal troubles involving improper campaign contributions in 2006.
Earlier this year, Trenton Testa had the land rezoned to general business from light industrial, which officials have told him is more desirable for buyers.
Kings Mountain Mayor Rick Murphrey and planning director Steve Killian declined to comment.
Tribe lawsuit proceeds in S.C.
The discussion about a Catawba gaming operation in North Carolina comes as the tribe continues to push for gaming on its 700-acre reservation in South Carolina.
A lawsuit filed against the state of South Carolina by the tribe advanced to the S.C. Supreme Court in July and is expected to be heard later this year.
In the meantime, the tribe is preparing to reopen a “high-stakes bingo” hall in Rock Hill, the reincarnation of a facility that closed in 2006 after nine years of operation when the South Carolina lottery weakened its business. The operation is allowed under a 1993 settlement agreement with the state of South Carolina.
But a new casino, the Catawbas argue in court documents, could provide South Carolina more than $100 million in new revenue.
“The tribe is very focused on our lawsuit with the state of South Carolina to have gaming rights on our tribal lands in York County,” Harris said.
Under the renewed compact with the Cherokees, North Carolina receives a small percentage of the revenue from the live-table games and slots allowed in 2012 legislation. The total amount is estimated at $2 million to $3 million a year.
Researchers Peggy Neal and Susan Ebbs contributed to this report.
More at CharlotteObserver.com