SHELBY - Fifty-two weeks of political finger pointing.
Fifty-two weeks of petitions for and protests against.
Fifty-two weeks of waiting.
And there appears to be much more waiting in store before we know whether Kings Mountain will become home to an expansive 16-acre, 1.8 million square foot Catawba Indian Nation resort and casino, a project that would create 4,000 jobs and 1,500 hotel rooms on site.
The 4,000 job figure from this single project equates to the combined past eight years of new job growth throughout the county, according to data from the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership. And it would be nearly double the size of the Cleveland County Schools workforce, according to the CCS's website which lists a total employee count at 2,354.
Nearly 3,500 county workers are currently without jobs, according to June 2014 numbers from the N.C. Department of Employment Security, the latest figures available. And that number exceeds 20,000 when combined with nearby counties.
Additional plans for the resort call for a spa, restaurants and retail options on site, and a performance stage equipped for national acts.
From the Taj Mahal to Cleveland County
Its location, right off an otherwise vacant I-85 exit in Kings Mountain, is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The increase in visitor spending is anticipated to create additional hotel, restaurant and retail options off site.
And it could become an even bigger hub of activity during weeks like this, when hundreds of visitors travel to Cleveland County for the American Legion World Series.
The Star previously reported that the county's roughly 600 hotel rooms are booked to capacity for the ALWS. If approved, the resort alone would offer nearly triple the number of available rooms.
"The location made it a prime choice," Catawba Indian Nation Chief Bill Harris told The Star in 2013. "Local leadership was very receptive. We're talking about bringing 4,000 jobs to Cleveland County, making it a travel-tourism destination. We're looking at adding restaurants, shops, hotels, entertainment. And the county can grow with this. ...We're able to come in with this partnership with Cleveland County and North Carolina and provide 4,000 jobs. How can you stand in opposition to that?"
For Brad Friedmutter, with more than 40 years experience as an architect and interior designer, it's an opportunity for him and his team to make Cleveland County a destination, as he's already done for other locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.
The Friedmutter Group, with offices in Macau, Las Vegas and Newport Beach, Calif., has a long list of successes under their belt: from the 3,000-room Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas to the 40-story Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J. And they're no strangers to Native American resorts, having built and designed several from New Mexico to Michigan.
The decision, which will be based on legal grounds, rests in the hands of the federal government, who will either agree or deny the Catawba's application to put the 16 acres into federal trust.
"The application has been working itself through (the Bureau of Indian Affairs)," David Dear, of the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership, said on Wednesday. "It has been received very positively by the BIA to this point."
County leaders, while nearly unanimous in their support, have shied from commenting publicly on the project, citing it as an ongoing economic development project and instead referring inquiries to the CCEDP.
To date, only the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates a similar establishment in the state, Harrah's Cherokee located near the Tennessee border.
Harrah's Cherokee hosted the 2014 North Carolina GOP state convention in June. And GOP leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the Catawba plans.
"I've seen no argument to justify it whatsoever,” Gov. Pat McCrory was quoted as saying in September of the Catawba's plans.
More than 100 state House members signed a letter last year opposing the resort. Many of those lawmakers, as well as McCrory, received thousands of dollars in political contributions in recent years from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
McCrory received $4,000 from the Cherokees in 2012 and the EBCI has given a total of more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions to North Carolina politicians.
Should the federal government approve the plans, the state and county would have the opportunity to enter into a revenue agreement with the Catawba tribe, Dear said.
In 2011, the EBCI signed an agreement, or compact, with the state to provide millions of dollars to school districts in exchange for the state allowing live card dealers at Harrah's.
What kind of jobs could a resort bring? It’s unclear exactly, but Harrah’s Cherokee maintains a wide range of jobs, according to positions listed on its website. Those include table game dealers, bartenders, bar helpers, chefs, caterers, barristers, servers, cashiers, hospitality professionals, hosts, multilingual professionals, accountants, surveillance and other security officers, maintenance workers, cleaning professionals, parking clerks, management professionals and more.
"It creates a whole sub-economy of itself," Dear said.
And, he said, it would open the door to countless entrepreneurial opportunities that could create an impact as far away as Charlotte, nearly an hour's drive east.
Among the many letters of support written for the project in the past year by county leaders was one from Cleveland Community College President Dr. Steve Thornburg.
In recent years, CCC has played a close role in training county residents to seek employment with incoming manufacturing and technology industries. That trend, he said, would continue with the resort.
"CCC staff is ready to explore opportunities for degree, diploma, and certificate programs in gaming management, travel and tourism, hotel management, culinary, hospitality, and other related fields," Thornburg wrote in the letter. "The size and scope of (the) project allows us to look at a variety of new programs, as well as enhancements and expansions of existing programs. ...Our Continuing Education Department stands ready to develop customized training programs to suit this project’s unique needs, including table gaming, catering, bartending, and housekeeping."
Congressmen speak up for Catawba
In letters sent earlier this year to the Interior Department, Congressman Jim Moran (D-Virginia), Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.) and former Democratic Congressman and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said now is the time for the federal government to fulfill its trust responsibility and the promises made in the 1993 Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.
“The Catawbas have been faithful allies of the United States, and yet their lands and rights have been eroded by a combination of federal and state action,” Moran wrote. “It is a familiar story in the long and tragic history of federal Indian policy, but with a twist -the tribe's rights were further undermined by Congress during my service here through passage of the Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993.”
The 1993 legislation restored the tribe's federal recognition, which the federal government had taken away, but the promise that the Nation has the right to a reservation of up to 4,200 acres never materialized.
“Two decades later, the tribe's reservation is a mere 1,006 acres, with the state of South Carolina working to block the Catawba Tribe at every tum,” Moran wrote.
Cleveland County is one of six North Carolina counties recognized in the service area of the Rock Hill, S.C.-based tribe.
'A darkening of the city'
Elected officials within the city and county have overwhelmingly, and almost unanimously, supported the project from the day news of its existence broke. However, in May, Kings Mountain Councilman Keith Miller penned a 76-page manifesto opposing the project and provided it to The Star.
“I fear the casino may gain control of the city council,” Miller wrote. “The result may be a darkening of the city economically, ethically, spiritually and educationally."
He went on to point fingers at Shelby and county leaders.
“There may be officials in Shelby and elsewhere in the county that may resent Kings Mountain, that think they are smarter and more deserving, and resent the disproportionately large political and economic influence Kings Mountain has. There may be people that would like to see Kings Mountain weakened economically and politically so they can steal control of the lake and other capital assets from the city.”
Miller later apologized at a city council meeting for some of the comments he made.
A group known as the Kings Mountain Awareness Group formed earlier this year in opposition to the resort plans. The group's Facebook page regularly shares anti-gambling and anti-casino news and research from throughout the country.
"Our opinion is there are some outside interests trying to stir the situation, locally," Dear said of the opposition movement.
Earlier this summer, roughly 45 members of the group staged a public protest before a regularly scheduled Kings Mountain city council meeting, but then left immediately after the public comment portion of the meeting.
Group members say they want to see local officials rescind their letters of support for the resort, despite the issue being a federal decision.
Area residents were quick to respond to the protest on The Star's Facebook page. And that response, with more than 40 comments, was overwhelmingly in favor of the project.
"This area could definately use the extra jobs," wrote Jeff Frady.
"It amazes me that any working person would protest this," said Judy Smith McCurry. "Can you imagine the jobs and vacant homes in the area that would be filled?"
"All of us that are for the casino should get together and have a rally supporting the Catawba Indian Nation resort and casino," Penny Daniel Weaver wrote.
An online petition in favor of the resort on change.org has attracted roughly 1,400 signatures to date.
News Editor Graham Cawthon can be reached at 704-669-3334,firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @GrahamCawthon.