'A real shot in the arm': Catawba Indian Nation casino takes step forward

Catawba Indian chief to go to Capitol Hill to gain support for casino near Charlotte

KINGS MOUNTAIN, N.C. — For six years, the Catawba Indian Nation in York County has been waiting for the chance to develop a rural piece of land off Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain.

The Catawbas consider the land off Dixon School Road part of their ancestral home. The tribe has had an option to buy 16 acres there since 2013, but the effort has stalled in government red tape.

According to one study at the time, a proposed casino would provide more than 4,000 jobs and an investment of $300 million to $600 million. The site also includes hotels and restaurants. It would be similar to the Cherokee-run casinos in Western North Carolina.

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Laeeq Khan owns much of the land on the other side of I-85 at that same exit. He has also waited on efforts to get the project off the ground.

"I wish them good luck, and I want them to bring the jobs," Khan said. "If they bring it in, we'll probably add 500 or 1,000 more jobs because we own 96 acres. We are going to develop this land."

On April 11, the Catawba Indian Nation received a letter from the U.S. Senate. It invited Catawba Chief Bill Harris to testify on May 1 in Washington. That happened after a bill was filed last month to clear up what the tribe calls vague language in the law about how they can use the land.

The Catawbas said the 1993 settlement that recognized them as the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina included an agreement on future land use and development. A debate over the details, however, required the agreement to be made clearer. The 16-acre site in Cleveland County would need to be put in a federal trust in order for the tribe to develop it and that's what the bill is asking for.

Catawba Assistant Chief Jason Harris said the tribe is facing high unemployment and poor health care. He said the $1.5 million it receives each year from Washington doesn't provide for the needs of the more than 3,000 people there.

He believes the casino project will help the Catawbas become self-sustaining.

"We don't want to rely on the government,” Jason Harris said. “This would be a real shot in the arm for us and our community. It will put people to work."

North Carolina senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis are co-sponsors of the bill.

The eastern band of Cherokee Indians has spoken out in opposition to the Catawbas' proposal. The Cherokee operate the only other casinos in the state. They are encouraging the Catawbas to push for economic development in South Carolina instead.