story by Ryan Saylor
The Cherokee Nation broke ground Tuesday (April 29) on a new $80 million Cherokee Casino and Hotel at a site adjacent to its more than 20-year-old facility in Roland, Okla.
The new gaming complex will total nearly 170,000-square-feet, which is just shy of three times larger than its current 50,000-square-foot facility that opened as the tribe's first Cherokee Nation Bingo Outpost in 1990.
Features of the new casino and hotel include 850 electronic games, a high limit poker room, a six-story hotel with 120 rooms, 7,500-square-feet of convention space and two new restaurants, including a Las Vegas-style buffet.
"We are bringing our guests the best in gaming entertainment and hospitality," said Shawn Slaton, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses. "The new facility allows us to expand our amenities by adding dining options, live music and a hotel. The best part of it all is our ability to create more jobs in the community where our business started."
The construction will bring about 100 new, permanent jobs to the city of Roland, where the casino already employs more than 300.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said an additional 100 or more short-term construction jobs would be created as a result of the casino and hotel construction.
Baker said the new casino in Roland, as well as the tribe's other gaming and business interests, are in existence to provide for the citizens of the Cherokee Nation by creating something more than jobs, pointing to the tribe's investment of more than $100 million to expand healthcare options across the tribe's vast land area in eastern Oklahoma.
"I was on the Tribal Council when we decided to move from bingo to gaming. We understood then the purpose was to create jobs and provide a better quality of life for the Cherokee people," he said. "Today, we have more Cherokee citizens employed at our businesses than ever, and for the first time in our history as a gaming tribe, casino profits are going directly to improving healthcare for our people."
Tribal Councilor David Thornton told a crowded tent of tribal and local elected officials, as well as employees and business leaders from the region, that the tribe's assets have increased by 22%, or more than $130 million, since 2011 with net capital having risen by 20%.
"These are things that I really enjoy saying because the operating revenues have went up 20% and the dividends to the (Cherokee) Nation (citizens) have went up 100%, people. That's not counting the extra $100 million that the chief and the nation has brought about for these clinics and I want you to realize that's one hell of a job."
Tribal Councilor Janelle Fullbright said the tribe has long paid its workers, including those at the Roland casino, well above minimum wage and she was glad to know that the tribe's efforts would continue with the additional jobs coming to the Roland location, which she said has been in need of upgrades for a long time.
"When I first was elected to the tribal council seven years ago, I wanted a new casino out here at Roland and we got put on the back burner," she said. "And one of my main jobs has been to make sure that Sequoyah County, the southern-most part of the Cherokee Nation, is not the step-child of the Cherokee Nation any longer. We want to be competitive with people across the river."
She was referring to the Choctaw Nation, which completed its own casino and hotel expansion on the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line at Pocola in 2012 at a cost of $60 million.
With the expansion of both casinos, Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Claude Legris said it would be beneficial to the city's marketing efforts as it continues to lure conventions and tourists to the city.
"Gaming is always good for the Fort Smith economy because it's another attraction that we can turn around and offer folks, both on tour busses and convention groups that want to come into the city," he said. "Even though it's not in Fort Smith proper, it still allows us to say that Fort Smith is almost as much a gaming community as West Memphis and Hot Springs."
He said many times, people looking for a weekend of relaxation and gambling do not realize what the Fort Smith region has to offer.
"Nothing against either of them. They're obviously gaming communities, but I don't think people realize how close the casinos are to the Fort Smith market and that allows us another opportunity to explain to potential customers some of the off-site attractions that are available to folks that are coming into Fort Smith."
Cherokee Nation Businesses Media Relations Specialist Alicia Buffer said the casino should open by May 2015, while the hotel is not slated for completion until August 2015.
Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe expected to fill all of the newly-formed positions at the casino and hotel with Cherokee citizens.
The new complex will be located at the same location as the original casino, along Interstate 40 and U.S. Highway 64 in Roland.