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WNC Business

Renowned destinations in WNC support thousands of employees

Apr 21, 2023 01:50PM ● By Randee Brown

Between their two locations in Cherokee and Murphy, Harrah’s Cherokee casinos and resorts play a significant role in boosting the economy of Western North Carolina.

Regional Vice President of Marketing for Harrah’s Cherokee and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Brian Saunooke said that both facilities employ approximately 4,000 individuals — 3,000 at the Cherokee location and 1,000 at the Murphy location. These individuals represent approximately 5% of the population of the six westernmost counties in WNC.

The facilities bring in approximately 4.4 million annual visitors. Saunooke said that about 30% of these visitors stay overnight in one of Harrah’s hotel rooms, while the remainder either come in for the day or stay at neighboring hotels.

“Gaming is still the primary source of revenue, but the attraction has changed,” Saunooke said.

“It was an evolution. When we first opened, the casino was the largest draw of visitors. Since then, we have added convention and conference centers that are host to many business meetings and conventions. The entertainment and dining options are other major attractions as well.”

Visitors come from all over, according to Saunooke. He said that one third of visitors are local to Western North Carolina and the other two thirds come from a variety of locations, many within about a three-hour radius. He said it is an easy drive from Atlanta, Charlotte, and Eastern Tennessee, and that the Valley River facility is particularly attractive to the North Georgia market.

Saunooke said the Cherokee resort functions almost like its own small town. He said that celebrity chef restaurants including Gordon Ramsey’s Food Market — a unique concept featuring seven restaurants in one — paired with entertainment, gaming, and other resort amenities create a fairly self-contained environment.

This “small town” of a facility just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and to date, has returned $6 billion to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the owners of the facilities. About $117 million flows into the regional economy in the form of direct salaries, and $30 million is paid directly to local vendors for a variety of services including paper products, food and beverage providers, technology installations, repairs, and more.

The Valley River location, which is a “snapshot of Cherokee 10 years ago”, has a $275 million expansion project currently underway. The project, which broke ground in September, will add 296 hotel rooms, rooftop dining with unique extraordinary views, a spa, and 25,000 square feet of additional gaming space. 

“This expansion will add 100 or more operational positions to our staff,” Saunooke said. “It is also adding 2,500 construction labor positions over the project’s duration, some of which are filled by locals and some are being filled by people coming to Murphy from outside of Western North Carolina.”

The year-round nature of this facility is also helpful to the region, according to Saunooke. He said that many tourism-based businesses in the far west counties close throughout the winter, and conversely Harrah’s maintains their operations and staff all year long. 

Saunooke said that the facilities offer a huge variety of careers. To support this variety, the company offers professional development programs, possible tuition reimbursement, and career development programs. He said there are internship programs, preferences for hiring internal applicants, and a development program for enrolled members of the Cherokee tribe to expose interested individuals to more aspects of the casino, allowing them to discover positions they like, as well as advance their careers.

More than gaming and bar staff, the company has positions in human resources, finance, entertainment, production, marketing and more. “These are really great jobs right here in WNC,” Saunooke said. “I myself am grateful that I was able to return home after college and find a career right here.”