North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday that he has strong concerns about a Native American tribe's plans to build a gambling casino on land along a busy interstate highway in that state.
The South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation filed an application this week with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 16 acres near King Mountain, N.C. into trust for the tribe. It was the first step in a long process to build a casino along Interstate 85, just across the border from South Carolina in North Carolina. The 2,800-member tribe already has land in trust in York County, S.C.
The tribe said the casino and entertainment complex would create more than 4,000 jobs - a boon to the struggling economy in Cleveland County, N.C.
County and local officials have praised the project. But many state lawmakers oppose the Catawbas' plans, even though the Eastern Band of Cherokees already operates a bustling casino in the western part of North Carolina.
While attending Friday's annual meeting of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, McCrory didn't talk about the casino. The Catawba tribe is not among the eight formally recognized by the state of North Carolina. But the Catawba tribe has filed an application for recognition with the commission.
Responding to one reporter's question after the meeting about what he thinks of the proposed casino, McCrory said: "I've seen no argument to justify it whatsoever."
The Republican governor left through a door to the hotel parking lot without taking more questions.
Telephone messages left for Catawba Chief Bill Harris were not returned Friday.
But to operate a casino in North Carolina, a tribe must clear four hurdles, said Greg Richardson, the commission's executive director.
First, it has to be federally recognized - the Catawbas are - and the tribe must have land in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Catawbas now have such land in South Carolina, but not in North Carolina.
A tribe also has to have a compact with the state to go into the casino gambling industry, a process that the Cherokees in North Carolina went through years ago. The fourth step: the tribe has to have the consent of the General Assembly. But that's going to be difficult for the Catawbas in North Carolina, as the project faces stiff opposition from state lawmakers.
One concern is that the Catawbas - unlike the Cherokees - are based outside of North Carolina. North Carolina House Speaker Pro Temp Paul Stam, R-Wake, said he's concerned that if the Catawbas are allowed to open a casino in North Carolina, that could pave the way for other tribes to do the same.
He is among the more than 100 state House members who recently signed a letter opposing any attempt by a federally recognized tribe from outside North Carolina to build a casino inside the state.
Many of those lawmakers have received thousands of dollars in political contributions from the Eastern Band of Cherokees over the years, including McCrory, who received $4,000 in 2012.
The Catawba tribe has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get some form of gambling, but has failed at almost every turn.
The tribe signed a 1993 agreement with the state and federal governments in which it agreed to drop a lawsuit claiming that broken treaties dating back to Andrew Jackson's presidency meant they should get hundreds of square miles of land. In exchange, the tribe was given its current reservation in South Carolina, and permission to open two bingo halls as well as to any additional gambling allowed by the state.
The tribe opened a bingo hall in Rock Hill, S.C., but competition from the state lottery eventually overtook it.
In recent years, the Catawbas have turned their attention to building a casino, saying that because South Carolina law allows gambling cruises in international waters, gambling should be legal within the tribe's sovereign borders. Their first choice was on land in York County, near their reservation in South Carolina, but local officials and the state refused to back the tribe's plans. The Catawbas sued, but a judge threw the lawsuit out. The tribe is appealing that decision.