KINGS MOUNTAIN, N.C. (AP) — The South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation has received permission from the federal government to build a casino and resort on land over the border in North Carolina.
The U.S. Department of the Interior approved in writing Thursday the American Indian tribe's request to use 16 acres (6.5 hectares) near Interstate 85 in Kings Mountain, just west of Charlotte. The location sits about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of the Catawba reservation in upstate South Carolina.
The $273 million investment in the entertainment complex could generate over 1,600 construction jobs and create more than 3,000 direct and indirect jobs once built, according to an economic development evaluation of the project last month cited in the decision.
The Catawba tribe has wanted for years to build a casino, which its leaders said has been thwarted by politicians despite a 1993 federal Catawba recognition law that was supposed to open the door for one.
The tribe "is very thankful for the department’s decision to take this land into trust, enabling us to achieve the promise of self-determination though economic development,” tribal Chief Bill Harris said in a news release.
Catawba leaders say they have a historical and legal claim to the land. But the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, with two casinos located in the state's mountains, disagree and say the Catawba should stay in their own state. The Eastern Band promised to fight the decision in court, The Charlotte Observer reported Friday.
“The federal government has no right or authority to create a new reservation for the Catawba Nation across state lines, into Cherokee historical territory, just to build a casino,” Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement.
The Interior Department's approval came as North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill last year would have directed the agency to authorize gambling on the land. That bill had been idled, however.
Burr called the decision “the right call.”
"Congress always intended for the Catawba tribe to be able to take land into trust in North Carolina, where they have deep, historic ties," Burr said in a written statement Friday. "I hope this decision will finally allow the Catawbas to move closer toward their goal of creating jobs and economic development in Kings Mountain with state and local support.”
The 38-page decision signed by Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney says the the Catawba tribe has “both a tribal population and governmental presence in North Carolina where the site is located."
The tribe provides health care, employment and other services in a multi-county, two-state area that includes 253 members living in North Carolina, the document said. “Though the site falls within an area where another tribe may assert aboriginal ties, that fact does not detract the Nation's ties to the land," Sweeney wrote.
Dozens of North Carolina legislators, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger among them — and Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper opposed the U.S. senators' measure last year. State legislators called the bill an "unprecedented overreach," while Cooper worried about whether it would prevent the Catawba from negotiating with the state. Such talks would include which games are allowed and whether North Carolina would receive a cut of the revenues.
Cooper's office didn't immediately respond Friday to an email seeking comment.
Harris said last year that his tribal members deserved the same prosperity as the Eastern Band has received from its casinos, the first of which opened in 1997. The Cherokee casinos have created jobs, state-of-the-art government services and payments of about $12,000 annually to each tribal member.
At a news conference Friday in Kings Mountain to discuss the 195,000 square-foot project, Harris said the casino would be paid for by unidentified investors. It would be run by Delaware North, which manages sports and entertainment venues in addition to casinos, the Observer reported.
“It’s a righting of a wrong,” Harris said of the federal government's decision. "We have now regained what once belonged to us.”