Casino developer has long video poker ties

The Associated Press

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KINGS MOUNTAIN — A South Carolina Indian tribe’s effort to open a gambling casino in neighboring North Carolina is being spearheaded by a businessman with long ties to video poker, an industry lawmakers have long sought to outlaw.

A company called Sky Boat LLC is working with the Catawba Indian Nation to build a casino that promises to bring 4,000 jobs to a site off Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain. The company selected by Catawba leaders to operate a casino is led by 40-year-old Wallace Cheves, of Greenville, S.C., whose business activities have included video poker, riverboat gambling and other gambling ventures.

North Carolina already has one Indian casino, owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee and operated by a major gambling company, Harrah’s.

The Catawbas want to build the second after South Carolina laws blocked the tribe’s effort to build a casino in its home state. The tribe continues to challenge the laws, including a case before South Carolina’s Supreme Court last month.

The North Carolina effort about 30 miles northwest of the Catawbas reservation in Rock Hill, S.C., is on hold while the tribe seeks a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs whether to place the property in trust.

The move is opposed by Gov. Pat McCrory, who doesn’t want a compact with the tribe that would include the state receiving a share of the gambling revenue. More than 100 state House lawmakers have signed a letter opposing the casino.

Sky Boat last year hired Raleigh lobbyists to try and diminish the political opposition. They included the former executive director of the state Republican Party, his wife, and the former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. Cheves said he will hire them again this year.

“Our background is not just video poker,” Cheves said. “It’s gaming. We have a lot of political background and have done a lot of consulting with other tribes. That’s why (the Catawbas) chose our consortium of entrepreneurs, just as Harrah’s was chosen by (the Eastern Band of Cherokee) because of their gaming background.”

Cheves said he has secured financing for the casino with help from partners including former Merrill Lynch bankers.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris said the tribe has been surprised by the backlash from Raleigh, where lawmakers have said they don’t want an out-of-state tribe running a casino. The Catawbas counter that their tribal service area extends into six North Carolina counties.

“Their quick opposition, I think, is what shocked the people in this community,” Harris said. “Someone is coming in and going to place 4,000 jobs in the area.”

But the casino’s ties to video poker and its successor, the sweepstakes industry, are raising more objections among state policymakers who have tried for more than a decade to outlaw them.

“Video poker has been a source of corruption and a challenge for law enforcement in North Carolina, and it’s troubling that this industry keeps looking for ways to expand its presence here,” said Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

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