- Melissa Ruggieri The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In the 20 years since the first slot machine clinked at Harrah’s Cherokee, the property tucked in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains has morphed from an “it’ll do” casino to a sprawling resort comparable to its brethren in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
From the allowance of alcohol sales (2009) to the addition of live table games and a nationally renowned World Series of Poker room (2012) to a hotel room count that exceeds 1,100 (the newest “Creek” tower came in 2010) and a gaming floor that boasts 4,000 slot machines, Harrah’s Cherokee has indeed grown up.
And it’s still expanding.
In September, the 50,000-plus-square-foot UltraStar Multi-tainment Center — a bowling, dining and entertainment venue — opened off the casino floor. With 16 bowling lanes, a full-service restaurant and an arcade, the amenity is a magnet for families (and, as evidenced firsthand, burly security guards who patrol the perimeter to ensure no one under 21 sneaks into the casino), while the upstairs VIP area with eight bowling lanes, pool tables and an outdoor patio and fireplace caters to elite guests.
“A bowling alley isn’t a bowling alley like it was 30 years ago,” said Leeann Bridges, a regional vice president of marketing for Harrah’s. “We knew that here at the resort, we had a lot of people that would bring their families with underage kids and we felt we could capitalize on that and get them to stay another few hours. Our tribal elders had been asking for a bowling center for several years, so this is a joint effort — we funded half and the tribe funded half.”
Harrah’s Cherokee — like its young neighbor Harrah’s Valley River in Murphy, N.C. — is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Council and managed and operated by Harrah’s.
At just under a three-hour scenic drive, it is no longer the closest gambling for those in metro Atlanta — Valley River clocks in at just over two hours — but it is the most convenient full-service resort.
While Georgia stubbornly refuses to budge to allow gaming in the state , those who enjoy the entertainment provided by slots, poker, video poker, blackjack and other casino games continue to funnel revenue into North Carolina.
Harrah’s has asserted itself in the market, with prominent advertising on billboards and in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as well as sponsorships with the Atlanta Braves and Georgia Swarm.
“Atlanta has been our No. 1 market since we opened the doors and it continues to be — for both properties,” Bridges said. “The majority of our (high-end) Seven Stars and Diamond players come from Atlanta and North Georgia. We want to own Atlanta. I think we’ll see gaming in Atlanta before I retire, but we want to stake our claim now.”
Out-of-town business is usually so brisk that snagging a room at Harrah’s Cherokee — especially on the weekends — requires advance planning. Because of the continued demand, another hotel tower with about 600-800 rooms, as well as an additional 100,000 square feet of convention space, is planned (Bridges hopes for “shovel in ground” by March).
Even Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River, which celebrated its second anniversary in September, is already in expansion mode. A much-needed sit-down restaurant is under construction, along with its own UltraStar facility, which will offer 12 bowling lanes, a bar/lounge and a small entertainment space for live performances.
But when reflecting on the evolution of Harrah’s Cherokee the past two decades, Bridges, who has been with the company since the beginning, chuckles as she says the property has seemingly always been under expansion and construction.
“If we look at the original footprint of Harrah’s Cherokee, we’ve more than doubled the size with the UltraStar center,” she said. “We ask ourselves sometimes, when do we get to the point when we expand as far as we can go? But we have big demand for the casino games and the entertainment.”